After starting the 2022 season 3-5, the Chatham Central baseball team rallied to win seven of its final 10 regular season games last spring and eliminate Jordan-Matthews in the Mid-Carolina Conference tournament.
The Bears really turned in heads in the playoffs, however. After entering the 1A tournament as the No. 21 seed in the east region, Central won its first three playoff games before falling to Perquimans. The Bears scored at least 11 runs in each of their three playoff wins.
Over the offseason, head coach Brett Walden’s team graduated three seniors, including Collin Lagenor, who led the team in batting average (.439), hits (36) and RBI (27) last season while starting at catcher.
Chatham Central’s top returners at the plate this season are senior Hasten Paige, who hit .395 with 34 hits and 14 RBI last spring, and sophomore shortstop Matthew Murchison, who hit .419 with 31 hits and 25 RBI. On the mound, the Bears top returning pitcher is junior Anthony Lopossay, who was 7-1 with a 0.72 ERA and 63 strikeouts across 48.1 innings last season.
Walden spoke with the News & Record this week about his team’s playoff run last spring and his expectations for the upcoming 2023 season.
Last year, your team had a successful season, going 14-11 overall, 5-3 in conference play and reaching the fourth round of the state playoffs. What was it like watching things unfold the way they did last spring?
BRETT WALDEN: We were really young. We lost a lot of seniors entering in the season. We only had three seniors on the team last year. They were an important three. Our best pitcher was a sophomore, and our No. 2 and No. 3 were a sophomore and freshman. We were extremely young in a lot of spots. We played a pretty good schedule, both in conference and non-conference. Our conference, at the top, was really good. North Moore was really good, senior-heavy. Jordan-Matthews was pretty good. We played a good schedule. What you don’t want to have happen is, when you get to the playoffs, see something that you haven’t seen all year. I always try to have a challenging but balanced schedule.
The biggest thing for us was, we didn’t hit very well most of the season outside of one through four, but when we got to the playoffs, we started hitting at the bottom. I thought that was the difference.
You mentioned only graduating three seniors from last year’s team. What is it like bringing back so much talent from last season, including most of your top pitchers?
We’re really excited about this season. We return, essentially, all our pitching. We have a big hole to fill behind the plate with Collin Lagenor graduating. That’s a huge loss. He hit around .440 last year and was a really good defensive catcher. He’ll be tough to replace, but Travis Crissman caught a little bit for us last year. He’ll probably our be our catcher this year as a senior. Two year ago, he caught the first third of the year because Collin had an injured shoulder. We moved him to DH after that. So he has experience at the plate, and he caught most of our second-round game last year in the playoffs. I also think we’ll be really good up the middle. Matt Murchison at short and Wesley Clewis at second. When Clewis isn’t pitching, he’ll be at second most likely. The outfield should be really good. Defensively, we should be really good. I’m just concerned about how things are going to go offensively and if we’re going to hit enough. Early on in the season, the pitchers are normally a little further along than the hitters.
Murchison and Zane Overman combined for 54 hits as freshman last season. What was it like having them come into the team and make an impact as early as they did?
Last year, if we were going to be any good at all, the freshmen had to produce. We threw them out there in different positions. DH’d them early. Pitched a little bit early. Matt, we had him at first base to start, but around the second Jordan-Matthews game, we switched him to short, and he’s stayed there since. We don’t plan to do anything else with him this year. And he should play every inning for us, unless there’s a blowout or something like that.
Are there any players who were on JV last year that you expect to compete at the varsity level this year?
It’s hard to say. Our numbers are down overall, so we’ve been practicing together. We’ll say, “O.K., here are our varsity starters,” and then we’ll grab a few guys to throw on the bench so we have some subs. Our better underclassmen we have pretty much already brought up, so I don’t see any individual getting a ton of time on varsity that played JV last year right now, barring an injury.
Northwood is coming down to 2A next year and will compete in a conference with you, Seaforth and Jordan-Matthews. What was your reaction to the news, and what do you think this will do for county athletics going forward?
The ADM, we’re at 376 or somewhere around there. North Moore is in the 600s and everybody else is 700 plus. Other than North Moore, ADM-wise, every other school is twice or three times as big as us. I was kind of shocked, honestly, that Northwood would go down. I know numbers-wise, they’ll probably go right back up in two years. But those are things are out of our control. You also have the new school in Alamance County coming in, Southeast Alamance. That’s a good baseball area too. I think our conference will be good at the top this year, but I think next year it will be really competitive up and down. We have no control over those kinds of decisions. The next realignment, I expect we’ll be with Seaforth. Jordan-Matthews is over .900 now. Who knows what the next realignment will bring, but I expect the next two years to be really competitive. I think Seaforth is a team that will be really good in a year or two. I’m glad we got them early last year. I think they could be pretty good this year too.
Sports Editor Jeremy Vernon can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jbo_vernon.