In a conference packed with individual talent, the Providence High Panthers might be the most complete baseball team.
Last year, the Panthers exceeded expectations by claiming the Southwestern 4A regular season and tournament championships.
This year, opponents likely will not overlook them again. The Panthers' lineup is loaded with major college talent and boasts the reigning 4A state player of the year, catcher Brett Austin.
Austin, a senior who has signed with N.C. State, is joined by fellow N.C. State signee Jake Fincher and Clemson recruit Jackson Campana in a batting order that should be one of the area's best. Head coach Danny Hignight said he feels there are several other Division I-level players on this team.
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The Panthers are talent-rich, but how far they go largely will be up to Austin, who should see fewer pitches this year as teams work around him.
"Towards the end of last year I stated to see less strikes and more intentional walks," said Austin. "I am going to take my walks because I know I have some great hitters behind me that will pick me up. I can get on and steal some bases and let the studs behind me drive me in."
Austin, who batted .436 with 12 home runs, eight doubles and 29 runs batted in last year, has received a lot of national recognition as one of the country's best catching prospects.
"Brett just understands it; he gets what most kids just don't," said Hignight. "He is not a kid who gets frustrated when he makes outs. ... He is a little more professional than most kids his age."
Austin and Fincher are two of only 100 finalists for the Louisville Slugger Pre-Season High School All-American Award and are listed on its pre-season watch list. Austin also has been named a MaxPreps Junior All-American.
"It is such an honor to be mentioned on a national level. I set my sights high and would of course like to win the National Player of the Year," said Austin. "That is something that Jake and I have the chance to do, but it doesn't mean anything if we aren't winning."
Austin already has won a national award as the unanimous choice for the National Umpires Association Player of the Year and Sportsmanship Award.
"I was very surprised and honored when I was told about that award," said Austin. "It is about on and off the field, like how you interact with other players and coaches and the umpires."
"My parents have a lot to do with it, too," he said. "They raised me the right way, and I really try to keep my nose clean off the field."
Austin was an integral part of the 2010 South Carolina Diamond Devils, who won the Under-17 National Championship, and the North Carolina Dirt Bags, who won the World Wood Bat Championships in Jupiter, Fla.
Austin has power and can hit the ball anywhere. The switch-hitter also creates matchup problems for opposing pitchers and coaches.
"The switch-hitting is something I am glad my dad made me start," said Austin. "I think it was sixth grade when I started, and it was frustrating not being able to get a hit left-handed at first. He told me once I get that first good hit it will become more natural, and that is what happened."
Austin also has the family pedigree and dreams of playing against his brother, Chase, a standout at South Mecklenburg High and Elon before being drafted after his junior year of college. Chase now plays Class-A ball in the Florida Marlins system.
Projected by websites including draftsite.com to be selected in the eighth round of the Major League draft, Brett Austin says he is focused on what's happening now and is not thinking about possibilities of the draft.
"I want to play as long as I can, and I know there is a slim chance of playing in the big leagues, but I have had that dream since I was 4 years old. I want to play with or against my brother one day," said Austin.
Austin said the Panthers have the offensive firepower to be a tough opponent for anyone, including Ardrey Kell, which features five Division I recruits including fellow N.C. State-signee Logan Ratledge, Austin's best friend since fifth grade.
After this season, Austin, Ratledge and Fincher will form the foundation of N.C. State baseball for years to come. No matter what happens between now and then, those close to Austin know he can handle whatever life and baseball throws at him.
"Brett has a winner's mentality," said Hignight. "He just really wants to win above anything else."