With an N.C. Class 4A state quarterfinal baseball game against his teams arch rival looming, Providence High baseball coach Danny Hignight didnt have much to say Thursday morning during a break from class.
Providence (25-4) will visit nationally ranked Ardrey Kell (28-2) at 7 p.m. Friday for a berth in the N.C. 4A Western Regional championship series.
Well just show up and play, man, Hignight kept saying. Well just show up and play.
His peers say this is one of Hignights best coaching jobs. In his first 10 seasons, Providence averaged 22 wins and six losses. Hignight won the Southwestern 4A Conference championship six times, and he won five conference tournament titles, competing in arguably the states toughest league. Hignight has coached more than 50 college players, including six high school All-Americans and seven players who were drafted by Major League teams.
But last year, Hignights Panther machine stumbled. Providence was 15-13 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The previous two seasons, Providence was 50-4.
Any time you fail, Hignight said in an Observer interview in March, I think you have to take a long look in the mirror at what you are doing. After going 50-4 in a two-year span, the expectation was that things would never change. I believe it all started with me as the manager not doing some of the things as well as I had done them in the past. I wasnt happy with my performance as a coach.
In the offseason, Hignight worked harder than ever to get his team back on track.
Were not used to losing at all, maybe one or two games a year at most, senior shortstop and N.C. State recruit Tommy DeJuneas said in March. Last year was very frustrating at times. This offseason, we really went back to work.
Providence began the year with 13 straight wins and earned a national ranking at one point. Ardrey Kell ended the streak with a 3-2 win at Providence April 8, avenging a 5-3 loss to Hignights Panthers earlier in the year. Providence has lost three more games since then, but only one by more than a run. And the Panthers avenged that loss to 2013 state champion South Mecklenburg by beating the Sabres 4-3 this week and knocking them out of the playoffs.
Up next is a fourth meeting with Ardrey Kell. Ardrey Kell won two of the first three, including the SoMeck 8 Conference tournament championship. Since that game, Providence has moved along well in the playoffs, winning two of its three games by one run. Providence had lost in the first round each of the previous two seasons.
Im pleased with my 20 players, Hignight said Thursday.
South Mecklenburg coach Jon Tuscan applauds Hignights work this season to get his team to bounce back.
Theyre young, but Im not surprised by what theyre doing with the talent theyve got, Tuscan said. Theyve got talent and theyve got arms. Hignight got them back on track, and once (pitcher/second baseman and North Carolina commit) Josh Hiatt moved in, that was the missing piece to the puzzle, giving them an extra arm to go to.
Friday, Hignight will coach against one of his best friends, Ardrey Kells Hal Bagwell. Hignight worked on Bagwells staff for three years at South Mecklenburg.
What a job hes done with that group, Bagwell said. And I tell you what, Danny Hignight, without a doubt, is one of the best coaches not only in this area but in the state of North Carolina, and Ill tell you why: He wins every year. He does it right. He develops the kids. They love him to death. Parents love him. No question, his teams are always prepared, always compete. Look at his record. He never really has any down years. Thats a sign of a guy who knows what hes doing.
Bagwell will coach in his ninth N.C. sectional championship game Friday. In 18 years, Bagwell has coached in four state championship games. In 2008, en route to one of his state title appearances, Bagwells Ardrey Kell team played Providence in the regional round. In 2009, the year Bagwell won his only state title, his Ardrey Kell team beat Providence in the third round.
Like in both of those meetings, he said his Knights will have to be extra careful playing a Hignight-coached team.
Youve got to do your best to win the small battles, Bagwell said. You cant make mistakes. Danny makes you pay for those. But hey, its the fourth round. Its either youre preparing for a best-of-3 regional Saturday morning or your doing inventory. We dont like the idea of doing inventory.
Hignight, for his part, is mostly staying quiet.
Well just show up and play, man, he kept saying. Well just show up and play.