A.J. James usually plays outfield. This year, he's been suiting up behind the plate.
With a handful of players missing weeks - or the whole season - due to sickness and injury, several members of the Mount Pleasant Tigers baseball team are playing positions they're not used to. But that hasn't stopped the Tigers from jumping out to a 9-3 (6-1 South Piedmont Conference) start and a one-game lead over second-place Northwest Cabarrus.
"These guys are working hard and finding a way (to win) right now," said head coach Bryan Tyson, who is in his third year at Mount Pleasant after coaching at conference foe Central Cabarrus for 17 years.
Four main contributors to the team currently are out with injury or sickness. Senior shortstop Ethan Ledbetter has mononucleosis and has been out for weeks trying to get over it. Sophomore catcher Wesley Hammill has a badly torn hamstring, which has taken him out for most of the season. Junior Christian Cannon, often used as a designated hitter, broke his wrist, and senior pitcher Greg Helms is unable to play after breaking his elbow and having three surgeries on his throwing arm.
All this is on top of the Tigers losing Garrett Furr, a star pitcher now playing at Catawba College.
Tyson said that last year several top players were out for crucial late-season and playoff games, but the Tigers were still able to finish 25-8 and make it to the regional finals.
That experience has helped the team.
"We had some injuries last year, and the guys saw that even though someone is out, someone will step up and get it done," Tyson said. "There's no panicking or anything like that."
It helps that the team returned a solid core from last year. Senior third baseman Matt Barrier was an all-state selection last year and junior infielder Brandon Burris was named all-conference.
James, a junior, moved from outfield to take the catcher spot after Hammill was injured. James said he had played there before in other leagues, but not for the high school team.
"Anytime you go from outfield to catcher it's a pretty big difference," James said.
James added that the years of experience the players have in different leagues has helped the team adjust.
"We've all played before and we've got a lot of guys that can do a lot of things," he said.
Corey Huneycutt, a senior who pitches and plays outfield, said the team has accepted the situation and is working to make the best of it.
"We're not really hanging our heads about it," he said. "That's not going to help."
The weather has also hurt the Tigers and other teams in the SPC. Cold and rainy weather kept teams from getting outside to practice before the season started. Tyson said they had to try to practice inside and use indoor batting cages.
He said the lack of preparation has shown on the field for his team and teams they've played.
"Us and other teams are making mistakes you don't normally make this far in the season," he said.
Huneycutt and James both say the team still has room to improve.
"I don't think we've hit our peak yet, but we're winning games the hard way," said James. Five of the team's wins have come by two runs or less. James said their tough early schedule could give the team an advantage as the season progresses.
The Tigers are in their first year in the 3A SPC, moving up from the 2A Rocky River conference. Tyson said the competition is much tougher this year.
"Anybody can beat anybody," he said. "You better bring your 'A' game or you're going to get your feelings hurt."
Tyson is proud of how his team has fought this year and hopes they continue to improve. But, he said, there's one thing that will help get this team to their full potential.