Everything ends where it began.
Tonight, Cedar Ridge baseball will return to the spot where last season abruptly ended. When the team bus pulled out of Pittsboro onto 15-501 on March 10, 2020, Red Wolves Coach Bryson Massey was focused on the challenge of getting his team to move forward after losing to the Northwood Chargers.
No one on board had any idea they had just played its final game as a team together. Certainly not seniors Cameron Hartley, Francisco Martinez, Grant Fox, and Chris Pearce, who tried to move on to their next game against Northern Durham, which would never see the light of day.
The following night, Rudy Govert of the Utah Jazz would give an infamous press conference where he mocked the coronavirus. Within hours, the NBA suspended its season and the dominoes across the sports world, from metropolitians to small communities, all collapsed with warp speed.
Massey had just started his head coaching career. After spending two years as an assistant at A.L. Brown High in Kannapolis, Massey hadn’t even started to form the shape of his new team’s foundation before it all ended. Without any games, Massey found himself just like many other baseball coaches across the state. He spent the subsequent weeks traveling down sparse roads to take care of his field, usually in complete solitude.
There were just no players to play on it. Massey’s Zoom sessions with his team were better than nothing, but they were no substitute for infield drills.
A year later, as Massey stands outside the batting cage as his young Red Wolves prepare for the most unusual season opener in school history, he reflects on last spring, a surreal memory that he would just as well forget.
“We talked about it a lot,” Massey said. “It’s not just about baseball. It’s about life. When you come out on this field, you never know what could be your last moment. Last year taught these kids a big lesson in life. You’ve got to take every moment like it’s your last.”
Massey will spend the next month trying to create stability, something Cedar Ridge baseball has lacked since the departure of Jamie Athas as head coach in 2018. Before he left for Walter Williams, Athas led Cedar Ridge to a combined 35-13 record in 2017 and 2018. The heart of the pitching staff was Phillip Berger, who won a school-record 21 games in his Red Wolf career. Berger is now a starting rotation pitcher for Division III William Peace University.
Now, Berger’s younger brother Will is the leader of the Cedar Ridge staff. Will Berger, who was a varsity starting quarterback for the football team in the fall of 2019, skipped the gridiron this winter to focus on baseball.
“Will has worked very hard this offseason,” Massey said. “He’s brought in trying to get his arm stronger and just develop into a better baseball player. That’s what he focuses on this offseason. He continued to work while we were shut down.”
Because of the pandemic, many of the teams across the Big 8 Conference lost a chance to field experienced teams last year. Of Chapel Hill’s 18 players, 12 were seniors. Orange lost the 2019 Big 8 Conference Player of the Year Joey Berini, now at East Carolina, along with six other seniors, including starting left fielder Tucker Miller, first baseman Dayne Watkins and pitcher Cooper Hench.
In that regard, Cedar Ridge has a step ahead of the rest of the league. They lost only four seniors. On the other hand, the returning players missed out on a year’s worth of playing experience.
“We didn’t lose 12 players and we have a lot coming back,” Massey said. “But we don’t have varsity experience. We have JV experience and there’s a big difference between JV games and varsity games. And just trying to get these guys used to the speed of the varsity game. We’re trying to get them as many games as they can.”
Another player that Massey will rely on is Matt Hughes, who has committed to Brunswick Community College. Hughes, a senior, started four games as a freshman. Marco Velasquez will also see time on the mound.
“We have a lot of guys that are going to go out there and compete on the mound and give us innings,” Massey said.
Cedar Ridge starts with a tough stretch. They open with Northwood tonight, who reached the 2019 3A State Playoffs. Its home opener is against Chapel Hill on Friday, then they travel to Orange.
Win or lose, the point is Cedar Ridge is competing again. And Massey’s message to his team, after a dormant and empty ten weeks last spring, is to treasure every moment.
“On the first day back to practice, our guys had some butterflies because they hadn’t practiced together as a team. for a year,” Massey said. “We had everybody out here on that first day. You take it for granted sometimes. I looked up and was thankful just to be on a field again.”