With lofty standard, Tigers just roll with it into state finals

Coach Jake Smith has directed Randleman back to another spot in the state finals. A familiar foe awaits. (PJ Ward-Brown/Randolph Record)

RANDLEMAN — All those lopsided results for Randleman’s baseball team on the way to the Class 2-A state finals don’t mean it has been easy this year for the Tigers.

“We can’t take any team lightly,” first baseman Gus Shelton said. “We are expected to win and that is pressure on us, if you want to call it pressure. I don’t think anybody has changed anything. We’re just taking it game-by-game.”

It will take two more victories to repeat as state champions. Whiteville is the opponent, beginning with Game 1 of the best-of-3 series at 8 p.m. Friday at Burlington Athletic Stadium. Game 2 is at 2 p.m. Saturday, with a third game, if necessary, later in the day.

Randleman (31-1) has won 15 games in a row since a loss to Catawba Ridge, a team from South Carolina in a spring break tournament in Charleston, S.C.

Whiteville (23-3) holds a 21-game winning streak. The Wolfpack has gone more than two months since losing to Class 4-A teams New Hanover and Wilmington Laney and splitting a non-conference set with St. Pauls – three opponents that combined for a 50-22 record. The Wolfpack beat St. Pauls in a third meeting by 10-5 in the third round of the state playoffs.

Randleman lost only two core players from last year’s team. So it has been clear that the Tigers would be viewed as a favorite this time around.

“It’s hard,” junior third baseman Hunter Atkins said. “We have a target on our back. They’re coming for us. Just got to stay rolling. They’re shooting for us.”

The Tigers are aware of that.

“To me, that makes it harder,” shortstop Trey Way said. “Everybody is out to get you at that point, if everybody expects you there (in the finals). We’re just playing Tiger baseball.”

Randleman has rarely been challenged, winning its last seven games by shutouts – six of those cut short by the mercy rule. That’s OK with the Tigers.

“Coach (Jake Smith) always says you want to be chased,” Shelton said. “You never want to chase down. You want to stay at the top of the mountain. It’s definitely nice. It’s always fun to win.”

Smith said the Tigers enjoyed the 2021 title for several weeks, but got back to work.

“They made a commitment to get back here,” he said. “We expect to win every year. Anything less than to have an opportunity to play for a state championship isn’t up to our standards.”

Atkins and then-freshman pitcher Drake Purvis had key roles last year, joining what’s now a strong senior class. Ryan White, who was the Most Valuable Player of the state finals last season, and Purvis have been the main pitchers this year. 

“We really only lost two dudes last year,” Atkins said. “More chemistry, for sure, playing together more.”

This year’s team includes senior catcher Brooks Brannon, who has tied the state record with 20 home runs and set the RBI state mark with 87.

Randleman’s starting lineup has seven seniors, with four of them Division I signees (and two other underclassmen committed to Division I programs) and another senior Division II recruit. Way is one of them and he wants to soak in the rest of his high school career before playing for Virginia Tech.

“It’s a blast,” Way said. “I try to hang on to every last second I can. It’s senior year.”

By Bob Sutton