The Hardaway and Northside baseball teams are as similar as they are different. And vice versa.
They sport identical 5-1 records in Region 1-AAAAA play heading into their key doubleheader at Northside on Saturday (the games were rained out Friday). Both are coming off solid seasons in which they were separated by only one game in the final region standings, Hardaway finishing on top with Northside closely behind.
And both are trying to take the next step in their progression, which only elevates the importance of the doubleheader between the two with only a month left in the regular season.
Each teams’ leaders are also similar, using a busy offseason of work to vastly improve their offensive numbers. And different, finding success in different areas.
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Take Northside shortstop Mike Rossi, for example. A player of smaller stature compared to some, Rossi has nonetheless found major success in areas he struggled a season ago.
His batting average, which was “sub-par” by his estimation a year ago is at .513 13 games into the season. He’s recorded a hit in every game but two and battled through a quadriceps strain that could have slowed down his impressive campaign.
“Last year, I had a real tough year,” Rossi explained. “A real tough year, but I worked hard in the offseason. I found some things that were wrong with my swing. I had coaches helping me out a lot, just on some little things.”
It wasn’t a quick fix. He never spent an entire afternoon at the park trying to get his swing right. Instead, it was a lengthy program of repetitions in the cages and a lot of lifting in the weight room.
“He just went to work,” Northside coach David Smart said. “He worked on his swing, made some adjustments. I think the biggest thing was he really bought into the weight room this offseason.”
The improved strength has resulted in a better approach and better success hitting the ball to the opposite field. Balls that he may have rolled over or dribbled to third base instead find their way to the gap or over the shortstop’s head.
“That’s what really killed me last year,” Rossi said. “I couldn’t use the left side of the field. Being able to do that this year, spread the ball to all fields, that’s what’s really helped me to be a better hitter this year.”
But they know power isn’t their bread and butter. Rossi’s knocked two home runs, but his and the team’s success comes from getting runners on, moving them over and driving them across.
In the other dugout, though, the Hawks have found power in first baseman Blake Meadows. Meadows, who signed a scholarship with Wallace Community College in February, is hitting .364 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs. The latter two stats are among the best in the state, with seven being the most and 23 the second most on record at MaxPreps.com.
His home run total his up from two a year ago.
“My bat’s just been on fire,” Meadows said on Thursday. “I did a lot of hitting with the coaches.”
He, too, pointed to weight training and an improved strength. The results are undeniable.
He has recorded five multi-hit games and only failed to record a hit in three contests, two of which have come in his past two outings. He noted the importance to come through with more production on Friday, given the value of the two games he’s playing.
“Everything needs to be on for those games,” he said. “Coach, hitting, fielding, everything.”
The two teams are deadlocked early in the region slate, 5-1 apiece, but they know how two games can swing the season even with a month to play.
“Last year, we were in the same situation,” Hardaway coach Chris Gilstrap said. “One loss to Harris County, and then we split (with Northside). It kept everyone involved there at the top. Winning or losing two here, though — it’s not the end, but it sure could help. Or hurt.”
For two teams of similar talent, it’s easy to understand why Friday may be a deciding factor in the Region 1-AAAAA race.
“It’s big,” Gilstrap said. “We’ve devoted quite a bit of time to these two games.”
“You try not to put any extra pressure, because technically it’s just another region series,” Rossi said. “That said, it’s Hardaway and they’re good and they’re in town, and you do want to win those games a little bit more. We just have to work on treating it like any other series.”