CLAYTON — If the usual stress that seems to hang with every pitch or the typical controversy generated by a close play at the plate or even if the reliable numbers that light up the scoreboard weren’t present when the Clayton and Cleveland baseball teams met last Tuesday: no worries.
It’s by design.
The Comets and Rams faced off with a little less on the line than usual as the two sides kicked off the first of four weeks designated for summer ball: a time meant for development and instruction.
But though the design of the Johnston County Instructional League is one of exhibition and improvement and not of wins and losses, both teams are using a different approach to have a successful summer lead to a productive season next Spring.
Chemistry key for Comets
Clayton finished a stellar spring season rather abruptly when visiting Apex knocked off the Greater Neuse River 4A champs in the first round of the state playoffs.
The loss could not diminish the success of the season, however, as the Comets went 13-1 in the GNRC to claim the title and finished with an impressive overall 17-4 mark.
Clayton coach Stacey Houser knows the chemistry of that team was at the core of a squad that put together a 10-game and a seven-game winning streak during this past season and Houser is looking to continue to build that cohesion.
“We’re very big on ‘team’ and that’s something that we try to create—the chemistry of a team,” Houser said. “Last year, this past team had the best chemistry. Now, a lot of it has to do with the makeup of the kids but I actually think that they genuinely cared for each other and it showed with the way we played.
“We’re looking to build camaraderie with this new group of kids.”
The Comets, who chose not to participate in the league a summer ago and instead chose to play in-house scrimmages, will play four games this summer against fellow county opposition while continuing to hold the intersquad scrimmages once a week.
Houser’s design has anyone from rising eighth graders to returning seniors playing against and with each other at some point. The four-week long season allows for Houser to plug players into different positions and situations and a limited pitch count means more innings for more pitchers.
“So our kids, within the entire program, get to know each other,” Houser said. “It puts our kids in different situations; it’s good for us.”
Rams looking for an edge
In just its fourth year of varsity baseball this past season, Cleveland posted its second consecutive season with a .500 record in conference play and an 11-12 overall record.
A senior-laden team finished just one game out of third place in the Two Rivers 3A Conference, a spot that would have earned the Rams a state playoff berth.
Jamie Lee is getting his first look at how a wave of newcomers from a successful junior varsity squad last year will fit in with his returning players to help get the Rams over the hump and into the postseason.
“I only have like five or six seniors now and a lot of these kids come from the JV team,” said Lee. “This gives us a chance to play a lot of different people in the field and in a lot of different places.”
The Rams, in contrast to Clayton, will play a total of 15 games against an array of teams, including conference foes Smithfield-Selma and South Johnston and teams outside of the county, to give Lee more of an opportunity to see how players will respond to in-game situations.
In the past, Lee has seen the summer reveal abilities in players that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.
“It is just a bit more relaxed and everybody gets at bats,” added Lee. “It really gives us the chance to see what other things people can do and maybe we can find a diamond in the rough.
“It’s going to pay off eventually for us in the spring. If we just keep doing the right things, it will pay off for us.”