Adam Pate vividly recalls the summer of 2019.
Wayne County Post 11 dropped a season-ending, extra-inning loss to Pitt County 39 and watched the visitors celebrate as they clinched a spot in the Area I East Division championship series.
Pate hasn’t forgotten staring into those disappointed, heart-broken faces in the post-game huddle.
“You know, we as coaches expect that in high school baseball because you’re wearing your school jersey, playing for your teammates and your community,” he said. “But, when kids are emotional, frustrated and disappointed when a season ends in summer ball, that tells you that you’ve got something special.
“All of those kids built some good experiences in that tough season.”
Two years wiser and eager for redemption, the core of that division semifinal team returns in 2021.
Post 11 launches its campaign Saturday at traditional South Carolina Legion powerhouse Lexington Post 7. The doubleheader begins at 1 p.m. at the Lexington Sports Complex.
Wayne County returns home Sunday for a twinbill against Ahoskie. First pitch is 2 p.m. at Charles B. Aycock.
Of the 24 players on the roster, 15 either played in college this spring or have committed to a college for 2022 or 2023.
Three key performers return for their final Legion campaign — Will Albert, Tanner Capps and Adam Brogden. Albert and Capps are position players and solid contributors at the plate, while Brogden starred in the bullpen.
The remainder of the roster is stacked with smart hitters and defensive specialists that leaves Pate scratching his head and possibly chewing off an eraser while he pens the starting lineup.
“Excited,” Pate said. “This is the most talented team I’ve coached because of the options that our personnel provides for us as coaches. We have to figure out what works best for our team offensively and defensively on the mound.”
Matthew Hare, the team’s “pitching mind behind the scenes,” welcomes five experienced hurlers back to the bullpen this season.
Will Harris, Tyler Thompson and Braeden Collins worked on the 2019 staff. Last summer, Brogden and Carson Gipson stepped into the fold as Wayne County played a non-Legion season due to COVID-19.
Pate says they’ve battled in the trenches and has no doubt they’ll give him quality starts on the bump.
“After that, we have a lot of kids who are going to have to step up,” Pate said. “It’s the question of what kind of role will they play this summer? We teach a pitching philosophy and develop our kids so they will be prepared for the high school season.
“We have a lot to prove this summer.”
Who they play
Although Pate has assembled his most-talented team to date, he’s not shied away from scheduling strong — if not better — competition this summer.
Besides a season-opening trip south of the border, the 28-game slate includes a three-day, mid-summer tournament in Myrtle Beach against the top Legion programs that South Carolina and Ohio have to offer.
Wayne County has dates against 2019 state champ Wilmington, 2019 Mid-Atlantic champ Randolph County and 2019 Area I co-champs Fuquay-Varina and Kinston.
Post 11 also faces Pitt County, Wilson and Ahoskie.
“Starting off with possibly the best team we’ll see all year,” Pate said. “Area I East is tough, but is a testament to the amount of good baseball we have right here in eastern North Carolina. There are a bunch of good teams. Ultimately, we want to be as battle-tested as possible when the playoffs roll around.”
Summer baseball is a different beast, says Pate.
Distractions increase tenfold compared to the high school regular season.
Players work, attend summer football camps, miss games due to previous commitments and go on vacation.
But when they put on the uniform and step between the lines each night, he and the coaching staff expects them to compete.
“Our players need to show up ready to compete in whatever capacity we need them that day,” Pate said. “If we can compete at a high level in all facets of the game, especially from a mindset perspective, then I like our chances against anybody.”
The program and community is hungry.
Wayne County has not advanced to the NC American Legion Senior Baseball tournament since 2014. That team reached the final four.
Three years earlier, Post 11 finished state runner-up to Cherryville.
“To get back would be huge for Wayne County,” Pate said. “That’s far too long for a county as a talent-rich in baseball as we are. As we get going, we need to stay focused, stay aggressive in all facets of the game and give it all we’ve got.”