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Powell back in the swing of things

051917FSCbb-Powell

Faith Christian School first baseman Justin Powell tosses the ball to Jacob Pridgen covering first base on Saturday in the NCISAA 2-A third round playoffs game against Westminster Catawba Christian at Faith Christian School.

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Justin Powell has come a long way.

The Faith Christian School senior is one series away from the end of his high school baseball career. And it has been a career filled with frustrating injuries and multiple comebacks. It seems Powell is back for good, and he has an entire season of proof.

In Tuesday’s 2-1 NCISAA semifinal win over Westchester Country Day, Powell looked to be the hero, if only for a moment. That was before a wild seventh inning, where the Patriots gave up the lead, only to steal it back in the bottom half to earn a win and a berth in the state championship series.

It all started with Powell, who broke a scoreless tie with a sacrifice fly to right field in the bottom of the sixth. Coach Greg Clifton said his team has had trouble hitting the ball in the air with runners in scoring position. Too often the Patriots put the ball on the ground, but Powell drove an outside fastball to right field, deep enough to score the go-ahead run.

“With guys on second and third,” Clifton said, “we’ve struggled not getting the ball into the outfield. Justin put a good swing on it and got the job done.”

It’s a sign that Powell is back to being comfortable at the plate and confident enough to put the ball where it needs to go. And for Powell to be in that situation at all is a testament to his persistence.

Powell had two consecutive baseball seasons wiped out due to significant knee injuries. He tore his ACL during his freshman season playing basketball, then tore the same ligament in his other knee his sophomore season. It was a blow to both Powell and the Patriots, who expected to have his potent bat in the lineup and dependable defense at first base.

“In eighth grade, he wasn’t far behind Landen and Braxton,” said Clifton, referring to D-I pitching recruit Landen Roupp and star catcher Braxton Varnell. “He climbed up a steep hill, and I’m happy for him.”

Instead of gaining experience and playing time throughout his underclassmen years, Powell rehabbed while his teammates played. When he finally made it back to the field for his junior season, he had to acclimate himself to live pitching. Re-training his eye was the toughest part. Recognizing the spin on breaking pitches or catching up to hard fastballs took time.

The Patriots would sometimes use the DH for Powell’s spot in the order.

“I’ve worked at it,” Powell said. “I wasn’t able to play for two years and had to come back last year and start all over pretty much. It was hard. I couldn’t even hit.”

With a full season behind him, Powell looked like the player that showed all of that potential years earlier. He is fourth on the team in batting average (.324) and is third with a pair of homers. He’s to the point in his progression that he can have an approach at the plate and stick with it.

Before his sac fly to right on Tuesday, he knew he wanted to hit the ball into the air. He didn’t try to pull a fastball, but instead took it out to right field.

“I was thinking get it to the outfield and high,” Powell said. “I was trying to get some air under it.”

While his bat has taken time to round into shape, what has stayed a constant is his ability to play first base. His footwork around the bag is smooth and is dependable defending bunts and digging low throws out of the dirt.

He charged a slow grounder to first, and flipped to Roupp covering the bag, just after stretching to his right and scooping a wide throw from shortstop.

“He’s made himself into a real good first baseman,” Clifton said. “I’m happy for him, man. He’s worked hard. He climbed up a steep hill and I’m happy for him. He’s a (batting practice) stud. He wears it out in practice.

“He’s come a long way from not playing for a couple years and not seeing a lot of pitching.”

Powell will be counted on in the middle of the order when FCS faces Northside Christian Academy in the state championship series. The Patriots were knocked out of the playoffs last season by NCA, which went on to win the state championship in three games over Westchester.

This is the first time FCS will play in the championship. It made it to the third round during the 2012-13 season, before having second-round exits the following two seasons.

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