ROCKINGHAM — He had to knock on wood before saying it, but head coach Ricky Young spoke two words that have the Richmond baseball team in an extremely upbeat mood heading into the 2018 season: “We’re healthy.”
The Raiders haven’t had to deal with any preseason injuries — unlike the last few years — and hope that clean bill of health follows them throughout the upcoming campaign, because they’re looking to perform much better than they did last season.
“I think everybody agrees that we underachieved last year, and I think a lot of guys learned their lessons from that and have worked really hard in the offseason,” Young said. “The team chemistry is great. They’re pulling hard for each other and they’re working hard in the weight room and on the field … It’s been a really good atmosphere.”
After winning a conference championship in 2016, Richmond experienced “one of those years” in 2017 — winning 11 of its first 14 games and then going 4-9 in the final stretch of the season. The team that got off to such a strong start quickly lost its touch and was bounced from the opening round of the state playoffs for the first time in eight years.
Young didn’t have to wait until this spring to get his guys back on track, however, as he coaches a summer league squad, the Richmond Rattlers, that’s made up of the school team’s returning players.
And it was a successful run for the Rattlers, as they built a bond last June that helped them post a 17-1 overall record and win the Central Carolina Scholastic Summer League championship. They shut out Rolesville 10-0 in the tournament final.
“Chemistry is everything. All the championship teams I’ve coached in the past, the one thing they all had in common was good chemistry,” Young explained. “You’ve got to have good leadership and good followers as well, guys who are willing to follow that leadership … and this group understands that.”
Seniors Jonathan Lee and Drew Loving are among those players that Richmond will rely on to lead the way this season. Both are expected to see significant time on the pitching mound and finish as two of the team’s top hitters — similar to last season when Loving tied for first place with former player Chase Haywood (22 hits) while Lee was alone in second place (21 hits).
The two have been “a little more vocal” in the preseason, but they’ve mainly led by example.
“A lot of the things we (usually) encourage them to do to show their leadership skills, they’ve just done without us having to push them. They’ve just kind of taken that leadership role over,” Young added.
Richmond will have 22 players on the roster this season, something new that Young says has contributed to the good atmosphere surrounding the program. He’s never kept that many players before, but “those guys have earned those positions, so we’re going to let them decide on who gets the playing time.”
The season starts next week with two home games versus non-conference opponents Terry Sanford and Anson on Thursday and Friday, respectively. Conference play begins the following week with the Raiders scheduled to face Purnell Swett, the defending conference champions, twice in a four-day span.
“We’ve got to be ready to play early,” Young said, “and our guys will be ready to rise to the challenge.”
Reach sports editor Leon Hargrove Jr. by phone at 910-817-2673 or by email at [email protected] For stories, scores and updates, follow the Daily Journal’s sports section on Twitter @RCDailySports.