Chatham has just finished its Dogwood District Tournament championship game against Dan River on May 17. The Cavaliers knocked off the Wildcats, 14-4, to win their third consecutive district crown.
Once the celebration is done and players are finished taking pictures, they get back to work, starting to reset the field for the next practice. Players begin to sweep and rake the field and remove the bases.
It’s a normal postgame scene, but there’s something a little different about it this year.
Instead of players grumbling, not wanting to put in the work, they’re fighting for roles.
“We all know we have jobs to do, and we know how we’re supposed to do them. Even painting the lines, raking the field, guys are like, ‘No. I want to do that.’ We get to playfully arguing over who gets to do what. It’s weird,” senior ace Andrew Potojecki said, chuckling. “That’s the group of guys we are, though, and the mentality we have. It really makes us feel like a well-oiled machine.”
It’s all part of the Cavaliers’ (19-4) motto this season: “All In.”
“It’s really changed us,” junior Brae Adkins said of the ‘all in’ mentality. “Last year, we would get down to practice and find ourselves slacking off a bit. Two or three guys were the ones who mainly did that stuff last year, but this year, we’ve come together, knocked it all out as a team, and it’s really helped us come together more as a unit.”
Of course, some things haven’t changed. Heading into Wednesday's 5 p.m. Region 2C semifinal matchup against Glenvar (12-9), when a state tournament berth is on the line, Chatham is poised to match or improve on last year’s run.
Changes around the field at Chatham are obvious. There’s the newly installed batter’s eye — a large black screen designed to help hitters focus — behind the wall in center field, advertisements from local businesses pasted on the outfield walls and a new batting cage, adorned in Chatham red and the words “All in,” the Cavs’ motto for the 2019 season.
The updates, coach Chad Anderson said, are evidence the community is committed to the success of Chatham baseball, just as the players are.
For the athletes, being “all in” means maintaining a next-man-up mentality. In reference to the TV show “The Walking Dead,” Anderson affectionately calls his team “the walking wounded” at this point in the season, given the number of injuries it has had to endure.
“We’re hurting. We’ve dealt with concussions, broken wrists, hamstring strains, quad strains, and elbow tendinitis. We’ve dealt with all sorts of things,” Anderson said. “But everybody has stepped up and filled a role for us when we needed them to.”
Adkins added the revolving door that is the Chatham lineup has made players fight for their positions.
“It’s gotten them prepared for that moment their number is called and they have to go into the game,” he said. “It’s really paid off and kept us going.”
The focus on doing whatever it takes to keep going was on display as the Cavaliers opened region play Monday with a 12-5 win over Gretna.
The Hawks took an early lead and went back and forth with Chatham for a few innings, but the Cavaliers struck for four runs in the fourth to open up a lead it never relinquished.
“We’ve gotten down in a couple of our games this season and we’ve all come into the dugout and said, ‘All In,’” Potojecki said. “That and never giving up are the mentalities we’ve carried every day, even in practice. Just give it your all and do the best you can.”
Return to states on the line
Last June, parents, friends and community members packed the streets of downtown Chatham. Some held posters emblazoned with well wishes while others held up jerseys made of paper. They showed up to heap luck upon a Cavaliers team heading to their state semifinal matchup in Radford.
But the Cavaliers came up short, falling 5-1 to Virginia High to miss out on their first state title game appearance since 2009, when they captured the championship.
Chatham’s players, though, have tried this year to apply the lessons they learned during that run that ended in disappointment.
“We’ve been playing every game like it’s our last this season, especially the seniors and members of that team from last season,” Potojecki said. “We don’t want to be the guys who don’t go out there and give it everything we’ve got and then end up in the huddle, after the game, thinking, ‘We could have done so much more.’
“Last year, it was kind of a bitter taste in our mouths because none of us had made it that far before, so we were like, ‘What just happened? Because we had it there in front of us, and I think we all felt like we could have done so much more. So we’ve prepped better this year in order not to have that feeling again.”
Adkins agreed, saying the team wasn’t prepared enough last year.
“So we’ve hit more [this year], taken a lot more swings off the machine so we’re prepared for the competitive pitching we’re going to face in the playoffs,” Adkins said, “because it’s not the same we face in the regular season. We’ve learned a lot more in practice, went over a lot more things and a lot of that stuff has come to us instinctively in games this season. It’s really becoming second nature to us.”
The Cavaliers nearly returned their entire team from last year’s run. Anderson, in his first year back after coaching the Cavs’ 2009 title team, sees a lot of similarities between this year’s quad and the successful team of a decade ago.
“This team, for the most part, relies on its speed,” he said. “We’re really great at running and are very deep as long as we’re healthy, especially on the mound. And we’re hitting close to the same average as the ’09 team as well. We’re not hitting as many home runs as the ’09 team, but we’re hitting a lot of doubles and are performing well in situational hitting.
“The ’09 team could move runners and hit sac flies, and this team has been really good with that as well, especially in the second half of the season.”
Kind of a big deal
At the beginning of Chatham’s practice last Wednesday, a few of the players were wearing shirts with “We’re kind of a big deal” emblazoned across them.
The squad’s seniors had the shirts made last year to represent the success they had not only last season but in their four years.
But they haven’t let that success go their heads.
“That’s all the seniors’ T-shirts,” Adkins said. “We’ve got a lot of seniors, and we all want to have one last ride with them. We’ve all been playing together for 10 years at least, so hopefully we’ll have one last run together and make it count.
“But we really try to remain humble and focus on everything being a team success. … We’re representing our school, representing our community by playing ball, and we’re having fun.”