Blake Sides was disappointed and frustrated with how his sophomore year played out. After recording a 14.72 ERA, the young pitcher was motivated to turn that around for this season.
"I just didn't have everything developed," said Sides of last year. "Over the summer, I worked a lot on my pitching and I guess that why I'm doing so well."
The Hickory Ridge junior has started the year with a much improved 3.50 ERA, being 4-0 from the mound, while also batting a .447. Sides said he's proud of bettering his play.
"It means everything in the world to me," he said. "It means that all my hard work is paying off."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Sides focused on improving his arm strength and his pitching technique in the offseason, making sure to get his stride out longer and his elbow up when on the mound.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound right-hander said he worked two hours a day - hitting and pitching every other day - to get his fundamentals down.
Sides, who started for the Ragin' Bulls his freshman year, admits he allowed his early success get to his head and he did not push himself to get better leading up to last season. But that mind-set quickly changed after his struggles.
Hickory Ridge coach Branden Knapp said Sides' improvement has a lot to do with that.
"He took baseball seriously this year," said Knapp, adding that Sides even gave up football to focus on the sport. "That's the big thing; he really wants to play baseball and really wants to win."
Sides credits Knapp as one of the biggest reasons for his improvement, as the former N.C. State pitcher has been working with him to tweak his mechanics.
Sides, who hopes to follow in his coach's footsteps and play baseball at a Division I school, also points out his technique isn't everything that has improved, as he's more focused during games..
"I work fast and just get in the zone - I don't let anything distract me," the 17-year-old said. "I just look at the mitt and nothing else."
Sides prefers to work the outside of the plate early in the count with his 86 mph fastball, but also having a 12-6 curveball and two other pitches - a change-up and a slider - he's able to keep batters on their toes.
"He's kind of a bulldog; he doesn't back down for anybody," said Knapp. "He'll throw inside if he needs to and attacks everybody equally."
Sides isn't the only player who has stood out for Hickory Ridge (7-5, 4-3 in the SPC as of March 31). All-South Piedmont Conference pitcher Zach Andrews is having another solid season, batting .390 and driving in 11 runs to start off the season. The senior's 1-3 record from the mound is a bit misleading, as he leads regular starting pitchers with his 2.36 ERA.
Senior Travis Baucom is also having a good season as the team's closer, striking out 14 of the 19 batters he's faced in his six innings of work. Jake Barbee, a sophomore in his first year on varsity, has been big on the offensive end, leading the team with a .654 batting average, while senior Jarrod Brown was tied with Sides with a team-high 13 RBIs heading into last Friday's game at Northwest Cabarrus.
Knapp said although his team has had its ups and downs, the Ragin' Bulls have done well overall.
"It's sort of been a team effort," he said. "Everybody has picked each other up."
Sides hopes his team is able to contend for a conference title. His coach said the team is capable of that.
"We have a lot of talent and it will come down to how bad they want it," said Knapp. "If they play like they can, they definitely have a chance."
Knapp hopes Sides is able to keep up his production. If he does, he'll give them a chance to win every time he's on the mound.
"We always knew he had some talent, but it's finally all starting to click for him," said Knapp.