Progress defines Post 81’s bounce back

Eastern Randolph Post 81 catcher Parker Evans tags out Stanly County’s Chance Hunt during an Area 3 playoff game. (PJ Ward-Brown/Randolph Record)

Eastern Randolph rediscovers winning ways in breakthrough season

RAMSEUR – Aside from the awkward ending, Eastern Randolph Post 81 put together a season that could set the foundation for the American Legion baseball program.

That would make this year’s efforts well worth it for a team that had endured some tough times in recent seasons.

“Our main goal was we wanted to bring life back to 81 baseball,” said first-year head coach Nate Cockman.

Consider that accomplished.

“It’s a different energy, for sure,” said third baseman Carson Rickman, who was also on the 2021 team. “I didn’t have great expectations because of last year.”

Eastern Randolph won two playoff series before forfeiting the Area 3 best-of-5 semifinals, which were slated to begin Saturday. Cockman cited lack of player availability for that decision.

Post 81 held an 18-9 record in games played, though two of those were overturned based on a player eligibility issue to give it a 16-11 mark (prior to the forfeited semifinal series).

Still, the team advanced to the Area 3 semifinals for the first time since 2015.

Post 81 lost three players based on eligibility ruling following the regular season. That contributed to the low roster number.

“We wanted to set small goals,” Cockman said. “We wanted to have a winning record. We wanted to win playoff series. We made those milestones.”

There were just a few returning players for Post 81 this season.

Creating a winning attitude took some time.

“When we showed up from Day 1, we had some talent,” shortstop Nate Gardner said. “It has been a great summer.”

Gardner, who plays for Faith Christian, had been on the Post 81 junior team, so he was pleased to be part of the progress.

“We opened people’s eyes,” he said.

Indeed, even with a lineup that constantly changed, Post 81 found ways to win games. Eastern Randolph tied for the Area 3 North Division title and would have been the top seed out of the division for the playoffs if not for a forfeited league game that knocked it down one spot.

Luke Thomas, a recent Providence Grove graduate heading to UNC Greensboro on baseball scholarship, made a huge impact in his only Post 81 season. He was the ace on the mound and played as the center fielder at other times. He occupied the lead-off spot in the batting order.

Brody Gardner, who played in high school for Eastern Randolph, also was a key player. But his availability was limited because of a role for the Lexington Flying Pigs of the Old North State League. He’ll join Rickman on the Greensboro College team.

“We need him here,” Cockman said of the impact Brody Gardner made for Post 81.

Catcher Parker Evans and infielder Aidan Allred also gave Eastern Randolph experience in the Post 81 system.

A victory in early June against Randolph County Post 45 sparked Post 81, which had a losing record at the time.

“That really kicked us off,” Nate Gardner said. “We saw that if we can get our act together, we’ll win games.”

In several games, late rallies carried the team to victories. That tended to be a theme, Cockman said.

In the best-of-3 quarterfinals vs. Stanly County, all games were played at Craven Stadium in Ramseur after Game 2 was postponed for a day and then Stanly County’s field deemed unplayable.

In Game 1 on July 12, Post 81 rallied from a 6-0 deficit to tie the game only to fall 7-6 when visiting Stanly County scored a run in the top of the seventh. Evans drove in two runs and Thomas notched two hits.

Post 81 needed to win twice last Thursday, doing so by 13-3 and 13-4 scores. In Game 2, Thomas struck out 10 in five innings. Samuel Asbill was the winning pitcher in Game 3. Chance Terry, who drove in six runs, and Rickman each had five hits in the two games combined. Thomas was 4-for-8 at the plate.

By Bob Sutton