'They got some bite': Hawks out to best start since 2016

By DONNELL COLEY
Sports editor
Posted 3/14/22

Triton baseball coach Jake Willis weighs in on the program's unbeaten mark through five games.

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'They got some bite': Hawks out to best start since 2016

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ERWIN — Triton baseball coach Jake Willis watched his team take two of its first four games before finishing the short 2021 campaign with a 4-8 overall record.

With a host of young returners back in the mix, Willis was hesitantly optimistic about this season.

But his Hawks recently improved to 5-0 for the first time since 2016, to which he credits a mentality shift from last year. 

“I knew coming in that this group was pretty close, and I’m really starting to learn how close,” Willis said following a 9-4 home win over South Johnston on March 10.

“They’re just continuing to show the fight and that’s one thing I think in the past we’ve lacked a little bit ... that ability to kind of come in and close the door. That’s something that this group has really shown, that they got a little bit of dog in them – they got some bite.”

Willis added that his club has incrementally improved in each practice and game, allowing them to display that bite on multiple occasions this year.

During the come-from-behind road victory at Midway on March 4, Triton overcame a five-run deficit and scored five in the seventh to take a 7-5 victory. The Hawks trailed South early, then watched their lead get trimmed to one in the fifth inning before closing the door with a three-run sixth.

Ross Stevens’ two-RBI triple during the deciding frame Thursday helped key the victory. Currently boasting a team-leading .714 batting average and five extra-base hits, Stevens represents a deep junior class with six peppering the Hawks’ starting lineup. 

“We honestly had a team meeting in the offseason to discuss with them (juniors) that, now, it’s their team to roll with,” Willis said. 

“If we’re gonna be successful, they got to come together and do it.”

Just behind Stevens, and leading the team with 12 hits and 11 RBIs, is Anthony Jones who has a .632 average. Jackson Lanier is also above .500 so far, while Xander Johnson paces the team with 10 runs scored and six stolen bases.

Willis says that in addition to their production, the juniors’ leadership has been the true difference maker for an unbeaten start both overall and in All American Conference play.

“They’re not letting certain things get to them. If something happens, they work harder and get everybody else to work harder. So, it’s been nice to see it.”

On defense, the core group has led by manning different positions from a year ago.

Jones moved from first to catcher following the departure of veteran backstop Payden Crews. Stevens shifted from third to first and Xander Johnson jumped to third after holding down the middle infield.

With senior ace Hayden Pope and sophomore standout Braxton Davis rotating on the mound, Willis is confident with how quickly his players are accepting roles as they trek through a new conference. 

“That’s one thing I preach to them (players), ‘We’ve got to stick with our plan and our approach. If we stick with our plan and our approach, we should be able to compete against anybody,’” he said.

Triton tries to continue its streak on the road Tuesday against league foe E.E. Smith.

Donnell Coley can be reached at dcoley@mydailyrecord.com 910-230-2040.

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