GRAHAM — Nate Ortiz made Northwood’s varsity baseball team as a freshman, and when the coronavirus shortened his 2020 season to just three games, he tried to keep the momentum going on his own. …
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GRAHAM — Nate Ortiz made Northwood’s varsity baseball team as a freshman, and when the coronavirus shortened his 2020 season to just three games, he tried to keep the momentum going on his own. Hitting. Fielding. Strength training. Anything, really, to mimic the reps he would have gotten.
“But nothing really compares to seeing an actual pitch on an actual mound,” the sophomore said.
So, count Ortiz as one of the many local players and coaches thrilled to hear about the Old North State League Futures Invitational, a month-long fall baseball showcase happening just a county above him.
The pop-up event for high schoolers, a spin-off of the statewide summer Old North State League for college-age players, wraps up its final games this week at Swepsonville Ballpark in Graham.
And as a member of the Chatham Chargers — a team made up exclusively of Northwood baseball players and coached by two Northwood baseball alums — Ortiz has gotten plenty of those live at-bats he spent his summer trying to mimic this September and October.
“You’re a little bit nervous,” he said, “but once that first pitch comes, you get settled and it gets easier.”
Ortiz spoke with the News + Record last Tuesday as his teammates filtered out of the ballpark, with the Chargers’ 5 p.m. game that night canceled minutes before it started because of unsafe field conditions.
Still, he and others had plenty of good things to say about the ONSL Futures Invitational and their team, which outside of uniform colors — powder blue, white and gold; more Los Angeles Chargers than Northwood Chargers — is essentially a transplant of their Pittsboro high school and friend group.
“It’s cool,” sophomore Lucas Smith said. “I haven’t seen them since the middle of last year, basically.”
The Chargers’ co-head coaches are Justin Szczypinski and Zizzy Newell, both of whom played baseball at Northwood and graduated in 2019. Because of COVID-19, their fall plans had been altered: Szczypinski was taking online classes via Southeastern Community College in Whiteville (he’s also a pitcher on its baseball team) and Newell was taking a gap year. More importantly, they were close to home.
So when Northwood’s current head baseball coach, David Miller, caught wind of the ONSL Futures event, he knew exactly who to call on. He reached out to Szczypinski and Newell with a simple message: “You guys want to coach?” Antsy for any and all baseball action, they didn’t need much convincing.
“This year has been crazy,” Szczypinski said. “It was nice to get another escape from sitting at home.”
The Chargers’ opening game, on Sept. 8, was a reality check. Although the baseball was low stakes and designed more for exposure than final results, Szczypinski and Newell found themselves scrambling: for the first time in their lives, they had to think about the game from an all-encompassing team perspective — pitching changes, adjustments, playing time — rather than an individual approach.
“As a coach, I have to be responsible for all 14, 15 guys out there,” Szczypinski said. “I’ve gotten a lot better at it, but it’s definitely tough.”
Plus, there’s the youth factor. Newell, 20, and Szczypinski, 19, are coaching a bunch of 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds. Two Chargers players, Mason Bae and Landon Johnson, were actually teammates with them on Northwood’s 2019 roster. Have the players received them well? Szczypinski laughed.
“I think they have,” he said. “We try to keep it light because, like I said, Zizzy and I played with two of the guys. We’re not trying to be authoritative, necessarily. We’re trying to keep it loose.”
That was the general vibe at Swepsonville Ballpark, a cozy stadium with wooden bleachers tucked behind the town’s main street and bordered by a small pond and the Haw River. A fading red and white sign up front proudly reminds visitors the Alamance County ballpark — which hosted the Old North State League’s college summer league playoffs in August — has been around since June 26, 1926.
Reggie Allred, the ONSL commissioner who owns The Factory, a baseball training facility in Siler City, partnered with Prep Baseball Report North Carolina to put on the fall invitational, branded as a chance for the “future stars” of the ONSL to get six weeks of games in under COVID-19 protocols.
Outside of the Chargers, there are teams from Orange County and Alamance County, including the Wolves, Hogs, Tigers and Patriots. The Chargers usually played three or four times a week, including a double-header, with all games scouted by PBR. That’s another perk.
“It’s a good element,” Smith, who plays catcher, said. “Your name gets out there more.”
The games, he added, are a chance for “simple fundamental work.” For Smith and Ortiz, both of whom have played in other showcase events this summer and hope to play college baseball, that’s a welcome opportunity. Their 2021 season won’t start until April 26, so they’ll take whatever they can get.
“It feels great, man,” said Ortiz, who plays third base. “I feel like I’m getting better every time I step on the field.”