From the moment the abbreviated season started, the Cedar Ridge baseball team has fought an uphill battle.
The good news is they were one of six teams in the Big 8 Conference to field a team. Vance County and Southern Durham were the ones who didn’t, leading to automatic forfeit wins for the competing teams.
The bad news is Cedar Ridge had the shortest straw pulled for them in regards to scheduling. During the opening two weeks of the season, each of the other five teams in the Big 8 had forfeit wins over Vance County and Southern Durham, which created an open date on the schedule that allowed starting pitchers to get valuable rest. Cedar Ridge, on the other hand, started against Northwood (road game), Orange (road game), Chapel Hill, East Chapel Hill (road game) and Northern Durham before the forfeited games finally came around on their slate.
Not to mention that only the first matchups between conference rivals counted in the Big 8 Conference standings this year, which essentially limited the conference championship race to five games.
With that unique format in place, Cedar Ridge needed its pitching staff healthy from the very beginning in order to contend for a state playoff spot. That led to another dilemma.
Matt Hughes, one of the Red Wolves most experienced pitchers, had an arm injury. He didn’t make his first appearance on the mound until the fourth game against Northern Durham, and only recently started to get into a rhythm. On Friday, Hughes threw four scoreless innings of one-hit ball with eight strikeouts against East Chapel Hill.
As Cedar Ridge completes its suspended game against Orange this afternoon at Red Wolves Territory, Coach Bryson Massey wants to use this year as a bridge to build something better for the future. Massey’ first season as head coach, in 2020, ended after just three games because of the pandemic.
“It’s been a different year,” Massey said. “I came in last year and we only got three games in. The guys got used to me a little bit. But it’s tough to get acclimated to what my coaching style is in just three games.”
If the first year didn’t give Massey a chance to learn more about his team, the second year hasn’t been much more forgiving. Last week, Cedar Ridge had to cancel a road trip to Northern Durham after two separate dates were each rained out. Then on Friday, Cedar Ridge had to make a second road trip to East Chapel Hill because two-and-a-half inches of rain that fell across Hillsborough left the outfield at Red Wolves Territory practically underwater.
“We’ve battled and had some close games,” Massey said. “We’ve got some guys that are getting a lot of experience in the field. That’s kind of what we hoped for last year. Learning to win has been something we’ve talked about a lot. Winning teams find a way to take close games. This year, we’ve struggled to win those close games.”
Cedar Ridge (4-7, 3-4 in the Big 8 Conference), has had four of its losses either by one-run or with the tying run on base in its last at-bat.
Not that there hasn’t been success. The season started with a stunning 8-2 win at Northwood on April 27, the Red Wolves first win in Pittsboro since 2014. On May 21, the Red Wolves defeated Northwood again, 6-1, behind big games from shortstop Bryce Clark and B.J. Thornton. it was the first-time ever that the Red Wolves swept the Chargers.
After the Orange game, Cedar Ridge will end its season against Kernersville Glenn on Wednesday night at 6.
“I love my guys,” Massey said. “I love how hard we’ve competed. But I’ve also had to remind myself that these guys had pretty much two whole years away from baseball. It’s been two years away from what I teach and how we got about ourselves. It’s been a year full of learning. The future looks bright with the young guys we have.”
On Wednesday, there will be a ceremony inside the J-Wing at Cedar Ridge High where three seniors will sign their letters of intent to play at the next level. Hughes will sign with Brunswick Community College, where he will be teammates with current Northern Durham ace pitcher Matthew Lombard.
“We’ve had to work Matt back slowly,” Massey said. “We started him on a pitch count. We’ve started putting him in situations where we’ve increase his output and he’s done well in those situations. He’s got a bright future.”
In addition, shortstop Bryce Clark will sign with Lenoir Community College in Kinston. Designated hitter Grady Ray will sign with Division III Methodist University in Fayetteville.
Recently, the Red Wolves have received some help from the winningest pitcher in school history. Phillip Berger, a 2019 Cedar Ridge graduate who won a school-record 21 games, tossed some bullpen sessions during practice in between stints with the Division III William Peace Pacers and the Elizabethtown River Riders of the Appalachian League. Last week, Berger earned the first two wins on the mound in the River Riders’ franchise history against the Greenville Flyboys and the Bristol State Liners.
Berger’s younger brother, Will, is a valuable part of Cedar Ridge’s future.
“Will is going to be the leader of this team,” Massey said of the junior. “He stays after practice and does everything right. He’s a guy, as a coach, that you dream of. That’s all you can ask for.”