Two years ago, Jon Tuscan was an assistant baseball coach under Danny Hignight at Providence High, helping the Panthers to a regular-season Southwestern 4A championship.
Now in his second year as head coach at South Mecklenburg, Tuscan is coaching against - and beating - Hignight and Providence, leading a young Sabres team to a tie for third in the competitive SW4A.
When Tuscan, 27, took over at South Meck last year, his first head-coaching job, the Sabres had 11 seniors. They finished 16-10 (8-4 SW4A), tied for second in the conference with Ardrey Kell, but lost in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state tournament to North Davidson.
After the loss, the team wrote "8 months til Catholic" on the dugout whiteboard, said Tuscan, counting down to the next season.
The Sabres beat Charlotte Catholic 11-5 in the season opener with a team that looked almost nothing like 2010's team. South Meck (8-4, 5-3 SW4A) only returns two starters and has four freshmen and three sophomores either starting or seeing regular action this year.
Tuscan said the younger players had to mature quickly. It's tough to have 14- and 15-year-old players playing against 18-year-olds, he said.
"They just bought into the whole concept," said Tuscan. "They just worked their butts off."
The transition wasn't easy, however, according to senior pitcher Chris Pearlman. It was hard to see underclassmen earning starting spots, and the returning players had to teach a lot to the younger players in the offseason.
"I think when we realized what was best for the team, we put our egos aside and came together as one," said Pearlman, 17.
The Sabres truly came together in a 4-1 win against Providence High on March 15.
"It felt good, they're a great team," said Tuscan about the Providence win. "I think we just played real hard."
Hard work is what has gotten the Sabres to this point; South Meck doesn't rely on a star player.
Senior outfielder Daniel Brown is the guy who keeps the team loose, said Tuscan, and has a .308 batting average while senior Tim Youtsey is the leader in the outfield and junior Adam Nix is the athletic center-fielder.
Adam has "made some plays this year a lot of guys don't make," said Tuscan. Nix and Youtsey are both football players, and they bring that intensity to the diamond.
Sophomore Logan Koch, batting .290 with two home runs, and freshman Harris Yett are sharing time at catcher, and two sophomores - Earl Oliver (also a pitcher) and John Carrick - share time at first base.
Freshman Brooks Kennedy plays second base. He moved to the south Charlotte area at the beginning of the second semester this year and was thrown into a starting spot.
Junior Andrew Mauldin, a .300 hitter with six RBIs, is the most experienced of the infielders at shortstop and was an all-conference honorable mention last year. Junior Tyler Braxton would have been playing third base, but he's been out with an injury and has been replaced by freshman Michael Smith, who has a .312 average in 16 at bats and three RBIs.
Pitching has also been key for the Sabres. Oliver and Pearlman held Providence to just one run in the win and Oliver held Ardrey Kell to just four in a 4-2 loss April 5. Pearlman has a team-high 21 strikeouts and two saves.
Mauldin, 18, called the team "scrappy." They've been down early in games against Porter Ridge, Marvin Ridge and Independence but have still found a way to win.
"It's just that we never back down," he said. "We were down in late innings and never gave up."
Work ethic is something Tuscan has emphasized since he arrived at South Meck.
"They understand that we have to work every single day," he said. "Every day we're trying to beat somebody. ... We're trying to get better than someone else and get better than we were the day before."
Regardless of how the team finishes this year, South Meck's youth bodes well for the future. While players on more experienced teams like Ardrey Kell and Providence have to wait until their junior and senior years to play, the Sabre underclassmen are getting playing experience now.
Despite the team's early success, the Sabres know the season is far from over.
"We are excited about the way we have played, but at the same time we're only halfway through," said Pearlman.
The players know that if they keep working hard, the young team could make its season last a lot longer. "We want to make a deep playoff run and make an impact in the conference," said Pearlman.