The N.C. Wesleyan baseball team was just beginning to find its footing before the season came to an abrupt end.
In coach Greg Clifton’s second year as head coach, the Bishops had started to define their identity which translated into a chunk of wins in early March. After opening the season with a 2-9 record that included a seven-game losing streak, NCWC won five out of its next six games.
The turnaround was promising.
A three-game USA South road trip was up next. Then, seemingly all at once, everything stopped. A 7-5 road win at Virginia Wesleyan on March 10 turned out to be the final game of the season as the coronavirus pandemic forced athletics around the world to hit the brakes.
“We had a good feeling that something was about to happen,” Clifton said of the looming shutdowns. “But we had no clue it would happen so fast. We didn’t realize at the time that our game at Virginia Wesleyan would be our last game.
“Everything happened so fast with this virus. We got the call that the season was over and the players had to come clean out their lockers and get out of here. We haven’t had the chance to talk with the guys 1-on-1.”
Most players returned home as the college’s campus closed. Plenty are in-state, but Clifton said he had players disperse all across the country to states like Florida, New Jersey and Virginia. Some flew home and still have vehicles to retrieve.
Yet before the season was thrown into chaos, the team was figuring out how to win. Through 17 games this season, NCWC compiled a 7-10 record and was preparing to enter the bulk of the conference season with players rounding into form.
“We got off to a rough start but nobody got down and we stayed focused,” Clifton said. “We were really playing well, and playing well without some of our big guys doing much at the plate either. Some of the young guys really stepped up.”
Drifton Padgett was one of those young guys. A Nash Central graduate and the 2019 Telegram batter of the year, Padgett’s speed and contact skills translated to the college game almost immediately.
During his senior season with the Bulldogs last year, Padgett finished tied for third in the state with 47 hits, and his 40 stolen bases was good enough for second in the state. Padgett moved from shortstop in high school to tracking down ball in center field for the Bishops.
His hitting ability and solid glove helped him see playing time right away. He managed one hit across the first five games, then the freshman collected five multi-hit games over the past 10 games. He was batting .310, and was one of just two players to have a batting average over .300.
His 18 hits was third most on the Bishops.
“He got off to a real slow start, but he was in the box trying not to get out instead of competing,” Clifton said of Padgett. “We just got him focused on getting on base because when he gets on base, he’s a problem. And he got real good at drag bunting. He had three or four hits on the drag bunt where there wasn’t even a throw made.”
Padgett has seven stolen bases as his speed fit nicely into this year’s lineup construction. The Bishops had 34 stolen bases so far this season, which tied the total number of steals that last year’s team accumulated over 40 games.
The shift in play style meant NCWC relied less on big innings via home runs, and more on manufacturing runs by getting on base and putting pressure on opposing defenses.
“We had to adjust to what we had this year,” Clifton said. “We had some guys that hit the ball a long way last year and we would wait on the big inning. This year we were sac bunting, we push-bunted a bunch, just trying to put pressure on the defense with our speed.”
Players like senior Brad Pennington, who was the team’s MVP last year and Division III Regional rookie of the year in 2017, got off to a slow start. And although one of the team’s top players struggled early on at the plate Clifton said that many of the younger players noticed how Pennington carried himself despite his struggles.
After not hitting a home run in the season’s first nine games, Pennington looked to be regaining form as he hit three homers over the next eight games.
“He really struggled but he held it together real good,” Clifton said. “Some of the younger guys, and even older guys, learned from him struggling and maintaining his composure, and not taking his bad at-bats to the field with him. He played flawless defense throughout, too.”
As for seniors like Pennington, the NCAA ruled that all winter and spring athletes will retain a year of eligibility, allowing for a chance to return. For many, the decision to return will be weighed against entering the workforce.
Clifton, who won two state championships with Faith Christian School before accepting the NCWC job in the summer of 2018, also felt for the high school seniors who don’t have that option.
“I feel for the high school seniors. It is what it is, but it’s bad and not good,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine being a high school senior and you’re not playing anymore. It goes to show that you’re not promised anything and when you do finish playing you better be able to hold your head high with no regrets, whether it ended like this or in a championship game.
“You want to be able to say when you walk away that I did everything I could in practice, I worked hard, and was the best teammate. There’s a lot of life lessons to come out of this.”