South Charlotte

Cougars' season already one for the record books

After an 11-0 win against Waddell in March, Charlotte Catholic senior left-fielder Austin White got on his computer, looked up the N.C. High School Athletic Association record book and scrolled down to the "Defense" section.

The Cougars had just recorded their sixth-straight shutout. He figured it had to be close to a record.

"Shutout, consecutive: 7 - Jamesville, 1979," he read. One line down: "Consecutive shutout innings: 561/3 - Jamesville, 1979."

The Cougars were one game away.

A few days later, Charlotte Catholic beat Garinger 10-0 to tie the record, then beat Harding 10-0 to break it. The Cougars went on to record 10-straight shutouts and 71-straight shutout innings.

"It was unbelievable how things just fell into place," said Randy Belk, who has been coaching the Cougars for 31 years. "You've got to make every routine play to do that. You've got to have a little bit of luck."

With a team full of juniors and seniors, the Cougars have relied on defense - and some luck - to win this year, leading to a 17-3 record and a share of the Me-Ga 7 conference title.

The Cougars had a tough start to open their season, losing at home to South Mecklenburg 11-5 and SouthLake Christian 5-4. Expectations were high for this team after winning 20 straight games last year - Catholic's first 20-win season - and making it to the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A playoffs.

Of the nine starters from that team, only centerfielder Ryan Wiese did not return.

"We started off slow, which we seem to make a knack of doing because we did the same thing last year," said White. "This year everyone's been gunning for us because we did well last year. We got South Meck's best shot first game, and SouthLake squeaked by us in the second one, but after that we've really come with it."

The third game of the season was a 6-0 win against Providence Day to start the shutout streak. Senior Daniel Stewart, the team's main pitcher, went seven innings and gave up just three hits, striking out eight.

In 10 games this year, Stewart is 9-1 with a .80 ERA, seven shutouts and 60 strikeouts.

The pitching has been strong this year, but the defensive play - specifically the infield - deserves most of the credit for the streak.

"I think the number one thing that helped this team through this streak and last year was our infield play," said Belk.

The defense made the game easier on the pitchers.

"All our pitchers have put faith in the infield. We know they've been able to make plays," said Stewart, who will play at Flagler College (Fla.) next year. "Our infielders are getting outs that would usually be hits for us, diving all over the place making real nice plays. They're shortening up the game for us and making it easy on us."

The infielders are not just making spectacular plays but all the routine plays, as well. The Cougars have just 19 errors in 20 games and opponents are batting .183 against them.

"We've got guys that can just make plays," said White, who was given the team's leadership award last year as a junior. "They hit the ball, you close your eyes and they'll be out. I play left (field) and I'll see a grounder go to short, and that's one out right there. It's not a problem. One through nine, the whole field is the same way."

In their second year playing together, the infielders are comfortable with each other. Practices are laid back, which leads to a relaxed playing style.

"It all comes down to having fun," said four-year varsity shortstop Alex Jensen, who will play at West Point next year. "In the infield, there's no stress when we play. There's no tension at all. We just kind of play like we're out in the backyard."

The Cougars also have several players who can play different positions.

Senior second baseman Ryan Werkmeister has played catcher and first base and pitched this year. Senior Josh Randall moves from centerfield to third base some games.

The defense has made up for hitting - Catholic is batting .328 as a team this year - that hasn't been quite as strong as last year. The Cougars may not be scoring as many runs, but they're keeping opponents from scoring more often. "The defense has definitely stepped up," said senior catcher Collin Manning, who will play at Holy Cross next year, but the offense is still finding ways to score.

"Even if I haven't been hitting well, someone else picks up a hit there, someone picks up the RBI there, somebody steals a base," he said. "We've just been doing those little things it takes to win a game."

The shutout streak ended in a 3-1 loss to West Mecklenburg on April 8. The players were more bothered by the loss than the end of the streak. The Cougars went on to win their next seven games going into the NCHSAA 3A playoffs, which started last Friday.

If Catholic continues to play strong defense, get hits and some luck, they could make a deep run in the playoffs. Those first two losses are far behind them.

"It's not how you start, but how you end it," said Jensen.