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High School | General | 2/22/2019

NW Guilford on Cary caravan

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Ethan Blanchard (NW Guilford HS Baseball)

2019 Perfect Game High School Preview Index

It’s probably safe to assume that every North Carolina high school baseball team enters each new season with the intention of winning a lot of games on the way to bringing home championships, both of the conference and state variety. Those are, indeed, worthy goals.

But over the last seven years USA Baseball, with it National Training Complex in Cary, N.C., has provided another way for a state school to shine brightly in a national spotlight and compete for a different sort of championship.

When the national governing body for amateur baseball stages its National High School Invitational at the NTC in early April – something it will do for the eighth straight year this spring – it picks a Carolina program to serve as the event’s host school, assuring the home state a presence in the prestigious 16-team field.

Hey, you Northwest Guilford High School Vikings, come on out here and take a bow. It’s your turn.

Northwest Guilford, with head coach Sonny Gann and a roster that features five seniors and juniors that have signed with/committed to NCAA Division-I schools, will serve as the host school when the NHSI sets sail on its four-day run April 3-6.

Being selected as the host program for the NHSI is a real feather in the cap for any North Carolina school, if for no other reason than a different one is selected every year and more than 400 high schools in the state have baseball programs.

“We know it’s going to be four tough games – that’s exciting on one hand and it’s going to be challenging on the other – but it’s why you don’t turn it down,” Gann told PG during a telephone conversation this week. “It is a once in the lifetime deal … and if we do ever get invited back, it ain’t going to be when I’m coach; it is truly very humbling.”

And it’s an invitation that truly resonates with Northwest Guilford’s players. This year’s NHSI field includes Perfect Game High School Preseason No. 2-ranked IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.), No. 4 Orange Lutheran (Orange, Calif.) – the two-time defending champ – and No. 5 Blessed Trinity Catholic (Roswell, Ga.), among other elite programs.

“When Coach Gann told us that it was official that we were going to be the team from North Carolina that would be ‘quote-unquote’ hosting the event for all these extremely talented teams, we were all excited to see how we stack-up against some of the best in the country,” Northwest Guilford senior right-hander Tim Cao told PG

The Vikings should be able to represent N.C. quite well. They didn’t crack the PGHS Preseason National Top 50 Rankings, but they are the No. 6-ranked team in the PGHS Mid-Atlantic Region (Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia).

NW Guilford is coming off a 2018 season in which it won the NCHSAA Metro 4A Baseball Conference championship and finished with an 18-9 record, the program’s seventh winning campaign in the last eight years. High school baseball in North Carolina is in a good place and the Vikings are proud to be carrying the state flag right up onto a prominent national stage.

“Once we got into the (NHSI), other teams started to hear about it,” senior right-hander/outfielder Ethan Blanchard said. “Now we have to show that we’re capable of playing (at that level) and we’re not just a team that’s going to go there and get rolled over by these elite high school teams. I look at it as a great experience and a great opportunity to have.

“I remember when Coach first told us and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s insane,” he added. “The teams that are going to be there are ridiculous teams and to have the opportunity to play against them, it’s just really (great).”


… … …

has to begin with its three returning starting pitchers. It’s not far-fetched to think about a college team with its trio of weekend starters, and all three do, in fact, have D-I commitments.

Using that analogy, senior right-hander Tim Cao, a North Carolina State signee that PG ranks as a top-500 prospect in the national class of 2019 (No. 25 North Carolina), would be the Friday night guy. Senior right-hander Ethan Blanchard (U.S. Naval Academy, t-1000/76) and junior Hayden Summers (North Carolina, Nos. 477/18 class of 2020) filling the other two weekend spots.

“It’s definitely very exciting when you’ve got three Division-I pitchers on your staff; that doesn’t happen often so it’s definitely a blessing,” Gann said. “Those three guys, obviously, will log as many innings as they can. We do have some other good arms that can fill in innings as needed, and I trust those guys … but it’s a good start having those guys at 1-2-3.”

These guys aren’t exactly imposing in stature, with Cao checking in at 5-foot-11, 165-pounds, Blanchard at 6-0, 175 and Summers at 5-11, 165. But the trio pitched like giants for the Vikings a season ago when they combined to throw 121 innings and finished a combined 10-3 with a 1.74 ERA.

“I think we might have one of the best staffs in North Carolina,” Blanchard said. “I think that’s what is going to win us the majority of our games is our elite pitching.”

Cao agreed: “Pitching has always been one of our really strong foundations. The three of us always help each other get better and be the best we can be.”

There are seven key position players returning, as well, including the outfielder Blanchard and the middle-infielder Summers (Cao is a pitcher-only). It is juniors who will need to continue to contribute coming off fine sophomore seasons, guys like catcher/outfielder Joseph Rezek (top-500/20 NC, East Carolina commit) and middle-infielder/right-hander Gavin Mortenson (No. 86 NC, Western Carolina). Rezek was a .415 hitter as a sophomore with team-highs of 34 hits, eight doubles and 17 RBI.

Gann is also hoping to enjoy the services of junior catcher/first baseman Ethan Martin this spring, but after a minor injury he is scheduled to undergo an MRI and his status for the season is uncertain.

“There are six guys in the lineup who are varsity-tested,” Gann said. “… There are some good young guys in the 7-8-9 spot if (Martin) can’t play this year that I feel good about. They haven’t played varsity yet and until you see it you just don’t know. I’m hoping they’re going to exceed expectations and if they do we should have a really, really good year.”

Cao told PG that based on what he’s seen in early practices and intrasquad scrimmages, things are looking pretty good: “I think we look like a really solid, developed team compared to previous years,” he said. “Ever since heading into my sophomore year I’ve always had a feeling – along with most of the other people on the team – that this would be our year that we could contend for a state championship.”

He went on to say that what he likes most about this team is how supportive the players are of each other. They expect a lot from each other and those high expectations makes it easy to push and motivate one another. The pushing breeds a friendly competition between the teammates which, in turn, makes everyone better. Blanchard has noticed the same thing:

“We are able to feed off of one another, but I think it’s also when we do live scrimmages during practice, the competition is intense,” he said. “(Hitters) are coming up facing upper-80s, low-90s (fastballs) and I don’t feel like you get that at a lot of other high schools.”

Gann is a big University of Alabama football fan and every now and then he’ll call upon his inner-Nick Saban for motivational purposes. He knows that a lot of what he tells his players might come off as cliché but so be it. It’s an important message.

“The thing that I try to hammer home more than anything else now that I’ve become a more experienced coach is I want them to get better every day,” he said. “That’s what I talk about … and I want them to play more (against) themselves than the opponent. … I want them to focus on how good they can be competing more against themselves, and then the other stuff will take care of itself.”

Blanchard offered confirmation: “Coach always views it as taking one thing at a time. First is win the game, then the next thing is win the conference tournament, region and then state. He views it that if you focus on one thing at a time everything will fall in line.”

… … …

“First Family” of NW Guilford HS baseball. Sandy Gann, Sonny’s father, headed the program for 32 years and led the Vikings to the school’s only state championship in 1998, his last year on the job.

Sonny was his dad’s assistant/pitching coach on that team and younger brother John was a member of the state championship squad; the playing field at the high school is named for Sandy Gann.

Sonny Gann graduated from Northwest in 1992, went to school and played a little ball at High Point (N.C.) University and then decided to get into coaching. This season marks his 15th as head coach at his alma mater and he can truthfully tell people that he literally grew up at the school.

Those same people tell him getting the job at Northwest must feel like a dream come true, but he said that wasn’t necessarily the case. When he originally graduated from high school he did not plan on being a coach, soon realized it was in his blood and came back to help his dad out for the last two years Sandy coached. He decided at that point he was going to make it on his own someplace else but then, well, things changed.

“The job opened, the opportunity was there, I got to thinking about it and I was like, you know, if somebody comes in and they happen to be here for 20 years then I may never have that chance,” Gann explained. “If I wanted to do it, I needed to do it 15 years ago, so I jumped on it and came back and I’m glad I did.

“It’s hard for people to understand, but with the growth of our area, a lot of people have moved in, and for me it’s not just the job, it’s truly been that for all of my 44 years Northwest baseball has been a part of my life.”

The program enjoys tremendous support from the school’s administration and other people that baseball is important to as far as expectations. “This is still a great place and as far as I’m concerned it’s still the best high school in the area,” he said. “It’s a little bit different than I went here but you just have to adapt and make the adjustments.”

Having spent his entire life close to the North Carolina high school baseball scene, Gann is as qualified as anyone to offer an opinion on its overall health, and he believes the scene is as strong and viable as it’s ever been.

“There’s no doubt about it and I think it’s a combination of a couple of things,” he said without hesitation. “With the population growing there’s more kids, and with more kids playing that’s going to lead to more talent.” And he then added this, with the caveat that there’s both good and bad to be considered:

“The summer stuff and the way summer is done now, has definitely made individual skill sets better than they used to be; there’s no question about it. There are more kids that are coming in as freshman … that are ready to be on varsity as freshman and that was very, very hard to do 20, 25, 30 years ago.”

The top five-ranked class of 2019 (seniors) prospect from North Carolina are ranked in the top 118 nationally, including the No. 1-ranked N.C. prospect and PG All-American right-hander Brennan Malone from Matthews; Malone, a North Carolina signee, transferred to IMG Academy in Florida for his senior year.

The others are No. 91 left-hander Chris Villaman (Ledford HS, N.C. State), No. 113 lefty AJ Wilson (East Surry HS, East Carolina), No. 117 catcher Raymond Torres (Providence HS, Louisiana State) and No. 118 right-hander Isaiah Bennett (Pine Forest HS, North Carolina).

Northwest Guilford is slated to begin its season on Feb. 27 at Randleman HS and has 14 games on its schedule before it heads down to Cary. The Vikings won’t be looking past any of those 14 opponents ahead of the NHSI, but the big event those first few days in April still has everyone’s attention.

“You really don’t get opportunities like this, especially in high school, to play against the best talent from across the United States,” Cao said. “It’s really good to take stuff away from this tournament that you can use in your potential future careers.”

Added Gann: “I know we’ve got good players but I’m almost like, ‘Why us?’ and I mean that in a very appreciative way. When you look at the names of the kids that are going to be there who are projected as top draft picks and the (schools) that you know in the (national) realm … it’s just very humbling.”

The Vikings will return from their four-day foray in Cary and then get to work on the real business at hand.

“Coach Gann has really high expectations for us as far as knowing your role, being a team player, etcetera,” Cao said. “The mentality is about … bringing home that ring; I feel like there’s just a bond between all of us. The atmosphere that Northwest baseball has, it lights a spark within you. … We’ve always had that state championship mentality.”

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