CHARLOTTE – It’s sort of an unlikely source of motivation, but certainly some of the determination for the Charlotte Christian baseball team’s rise back to the top after a three-season hiatus can be traced to the pane of a window.
The Knights had won four straight NCISAA titles from 2012 to 2015, making it 15 for the program as a whole and a whopping 13 titles coming during a 17-year span of dominance.
But things weren’t looking great now. Covenant Day had beaten Christian in the regular season finale and the Knights were again playing Wesleyan Christian in the finals. Since the Knights’ last state title in 2015, Wesleyan Christian had become the state’s power. They won titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018, with the last two coming against the Knights.
And now they were set to meet again.
The Knights display conference and state championship banners on the outfield wall of the pristinely manicured Charlotte Christian baseball field. There is also a year plate for each of their previous championships affixed the clubhouse window in all spots except for one.
With the lack of state titles since 2015, the clubhouse had one blank spot with room for one more banner. And something this team became almost obsessive over, according to coach Greg Simmons, the orchestrator of all of the Knights’ vast success.
“You can see all of the state championships, but from this one window it’s not filled in with banners,” he said. “Those guys started saying, ‘OK, it’s our job to fill in the window.’ It got to be so intense that we started having our team meetings and before-practice meetings under that window and make guys look at it.
“The last two or three weeks, they played at a totally different level. They brought that same intensity the last three weeks, and sometimes with kids it’s hard to keep them that focused. But, boy that was fun to watch.”
In the last practice of the season, Simmons said he wrote down what he wanted to accomplish, and when they did it all, they could leave.
Drills that normally took 10 minutes took two or three. Simmons said they left super early and focused going into the state finals.
To get there, the Knights had pounded Country Day 7-1 and snuck past Christ School 4-3 on a walkoff.
“They were focused,” Simmons said. “We’ve been there the last two years and came up short the last two years. The seniors weren’t going to let that happen again. This senior class was impressive. They were focused from the first workout we had in the fall and they bought in. They were phenomenal.”
In the first game of the best-of-three championship series against Wesleyan, the Knights got on the board to go up 1-0 after three innings.
In the bottom of the fourth, Wesleyan got four runs to take a three-run lead, but Charlotte Christian added four runs in the top of the fifth inning and never looked back.
“Every time they scored, it seemed we came back,” Simmons said. “That was awesome.”
JB Awolowo homered and Brett Adams, Matthew Sliverling and JD Suarez had two hits in the game.
So too did JT Killen, the Coastal Carolina commit who also drove in a run.
This season, Killen was an all-state pitcher once again but also was dominant at the plate. He hit .475 with 42 RBIs, eight home runs, 10 doubles and an on-base percentage of .530.
“My goodness,” Simmons said. “He figured it out and turned into a really, really good hitter. I think he has a chance to hit at Coastal. The kid is going to be pretty special.”
Killen started the finale on May 18, but gave up two runs in the top of the first inning.
“JT pitched and in the first inning he struggled,” Simmons said. “After that, he kind of settled in and was really impressive.”
The Knights answered right back with three runs in the bottom of the first and held the lead until the fourth when Silverling’s sacrifice fly made the score 4-2.
In the fifth, Silverling struck again with a double that scored Killen and led to the game’s finals 5-2 score after Matt Mayers pitched two scoreless innings of relief and struck out the side in the seventh, setting off a large celebration.
“That was special,” Simmons said. “We’ve been really blessed to have really good players and win it a lot, but after a few years, you kind of start thinking, ‘OK, well maybe the run is over.’ So it was good for the guys to bounce back.”