Former player hopes to bring Independence baseball back to the top
Friday, Apr. 11, 2014

Former player hopes to bring Independence baseball back to the top

    Independence seniors Triston Glover, left, and James Hickes have helped the Patriots to a 10-3 start this season. Their coach, Daniel Cooke, played for the Patriots when the team made it to the 2004 state-championship series.
    Independence seniors James Hickes, left, and Triston Glover have helped the Patriots to a 10-3 start. Independence has shut out five opponents and has a team ERA of 1.65.
    Independence seniors James Hickes, left, and Triston Glover have helped the Patriots to a 10-3 start. Hickes is 4-2 on the mound with a 2.20 ERA. Glover is hitting .378 with 14 RBIs.

Daniel Cooke played baseball at Independence in the middle of last decade. During his junior year – 2004 – the Patriots made it to the state-championship series, losing in three games to Greenville Rose.

Now Cooke, 27, is in his second year as the Patriots’ head coach and says he wants to get the program back to where it was when he was a All-Observer pick who went on to play football and baseball at Gardner-Webb.

With a 11-3 record (through April 10) and only one conference loss this season, the Patriots seem to be moving in the right direction.

Independence was 7-15 last season but returned an experienced team with eight seniors.

“We had high expectations,” Cooke said. “I felt like people were still kind of sleeping on us a little bit, but … with so many guys returning, and they kind of bought-in last year even though our record wasn’t the best.”

The players get plenty of reminders about what the program’s past. In addition to Cooke, three other Patriot coaches played at Independence in high school.

Senior third baseman Triston Glover’s uncle, Tom Malchesky, played on the Patriots’ lone state-title team in 1984, also at third base.

“Hearing stuff like that, I definitely want to get to that level,” Glover, 18, said.

“I mean, we want to be the team that gets us back to where they were and get the program back going,” added senior pitcher James Hickes, 17.

The players and coach attribute this year’s turnaround to improved team chemistry.

The players are more comfortable with Cooke. Many – including Hickes and Glover – also played together on the Mint Hill Army Junior American Legion team, which went on to win the state championship.

“We know how to win together because we did good this summer,” Hickes said. “We had that confidence coming into the season, and I think it just kept going, since we all played together.”

Independence regularly starts about seven seniors. The team’s strength is pitching and defense. The Patriots have had five shutouts this year, and the team’s ERA is 1.65.

Hickes, the team’s ace, is 4-2 with a 2.20 ERA, 23 strikeouts and five walks.

“I tell them what’s going to win our conference … is pitching and defense and timely hitting,” said Cooke. “But our strength really has been our pitching and defense.”

Hickes and Glover would like to see improvement at the plate. The team started the season well, they said, but hitting has fallen off recently.

Glover, a Montreat recruit who usually bats in the middle of the lineup, has a .378 batting average with 14 RBIs.

Senior outfielder Jacob Fairfax is hitting .400 with a .564 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot.

“Once the bats are on, they’re on,” Glover said. “You can’t beat us.”

The Patriots’ three losses this season have come in close games against good opponents. They opened the season with a 6-2 loss to defending 4A state champion South Mecklenburg.

Independence lost to Hough 12-11 in March, and Porter Ridge 4-2 on April 8 after giving up four runs in the sixth inning.

The Patriots saw an opportunity to win a conference championship when realignment broke up the Southwestern 4A, traditionally one of the toughest conferences in the state.

State powers Ardrey Kell, Providence High and South Mecklenburg moved to the new SoMeck 8, while Independence, Rocky River, Myers Park, East Mecklenburg and Butler stayed in the Southwestern 4A, which added Porter Ridge and Garinger.

“They know it’s definitely up for grabs, especially when the big three left,” Cooke said. “Nobody knew, really, who the favorite was, so they kind of took it as a challenge of, ‘Why not us?’ 

Independence still played each of the “big three” this season. The team traveled to Providence High on April 11 and play at Ardrey Kell on April 24. Between those games, the Patriots play Charlotte Catholic, Hopewell and Marvin Ridge in the East Meck Spring Break Tournament on April 14-16.

Cooke said it at first was surreal when he returned to coach at Independence; now, he said, he’s enjoying seeing the team succeed.

“These seniors could really be the ones that put us back on the map, where people kind of respect us as a baseball school as well,” Cooke said. “As a former player, it’s good to see us back on top, and back competitive in the conference and getting some recognition.”

Inscoe: 704-358-5923; Twitter: @CoreyInscoe

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