New-look Tigers keep lofty goals for baseball season

Randleman coach Jake Smith receives a water bath courtesy of Riley Edwards after the Tigers won the 2022 state championship in Burlington. (PJ Ward-Brown/Randolph Record)

Randleman’s baseball team embarks on another season of high expectations

RANDLEMAN – Randleman has been at the top of the Class 2-A baseball world in the state for the past two years.

Going into this season, the Tigers are going to look different. The goals haven’t changed.

“It’s exciting for the kids, a lot of them waiting their turn,” coach Jake Smith said. “I think we’ve got a lot of guys who are excited about their roles and get their chance to kind of prove themselves and kind of continue what we got going.”

Only two mainstays from the 2022 lineup are still with the Tigers – and they’re both in different positions in the field. Plus, Drake Purvis remains a standout on the mound.

Yet if nothing else, Randleman knows how to reload.

Hunter Atkins is already a two-time all-conference player and he moves from third baseman to shortstop for his senior season. He said it’s clear that there’s a different look with the Tigers, but that doesn’t mean their fans should be worried.

“I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me: ‘How we going to look? How we going to look? We lost everybody.’ ” Atkins said. “We’ve been working our tails off. These guys, it’s not like they’re young, but they’re inexperienced.”

The level of experience would be nearly impossible to replicate with a senior-laden team from a year ago that had college baseball scholarships lined up. Not to mention catcher Brooks Brannon, who was drafted and signed with the Boston Red Sox after setting state records for home runs and runs batted in.

He was just part of a power-laden group.

“You go from a record-setting lineup from runs scored, home runs, RBIs, it is a little different,” Smith said. “These guys are waiting their turn and they got to see great leaders and kids who know how to work and prepare and do the right things before them. They know they can’t be those guys. They just do what they can do, contribute to the team and be great teammates and hopefully have a great season.”

The Tigers were 33-1 last year following a 19-2 record in 2021.

Certain types of pressure that might have existed last year – though there wasn’t evidence of stress around a team that generally dominated and posted shutouts in eight consecutive games – won’t be present this spring.

“We had these D-1 commits (so) if Randleman doesn’t win the state championship, what are they doing?” Atkins said. “This year, I feel like they’re kind of sleeping on us a little bit. I like being slept on. You can go out and show them that we’re really not that bad. Everyone wants to beat Randleman. Being the underdog a little bit, taking a punch.”

Along with Atkins, Seth Way is a returning starter. The junior, whose older brother Trey Way was the team’s 2022 shortstop and lead-off batter, will move from left field to center field. He’ll likely be slotted third in the batting order.

Way is also a pitcher, something of a priority for him.

“People say that we lost a lot of guys,” Way said. “People saying that we’re not going to be any good could not be farther from the truth.”

Other pitchers are Purvis, who threw a no-hitter in the opener of last June’s Class 2-A championship series, Austin Lemmons, Chesney Welch and Atkins.

Caleb Dunn takes the catcher’s role, while Shawn Miller is the potential lead-off batter. Miller will be the second baseman (or shortstop when Atkins pitches). Welch, who took his junior year off from baseball, is a corner infielder. Atkins also helped convince football player Riley Edwards to suit up for this season.

Way could be surrounded in the outfield by a pair of freshmen – Jake Riddle in left field and John Kirkpatrick in right field.

“They might be young, but they know what to do,” Smith said.

Newcomers to the lineup could develop into key players.

“These guys have stepped up, they really have,” Atkins said. “It’s impressive.”

Randleman carries a 17-game winning streak into 2023.

Now there’s an opportunity to create more memories.

“You just have fun with it and just go play,” Way said.

Smith’s approach might be altered along the way, but the foundation is similar. He has put together a challenging schedule, while last week’s preseason scrimmage at Charlotte Providence, the reigning Class 4-A state champion, included numerous encouraging moments.

“Hopefully, we’ll have some success,” Smith said. “I’m sure there will be some bumps in the road that we can learn from and get better.”

By Bob Sutton