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High School | General | 2/18/2021

Culture carries CCS in the Carolinas

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Philip Abner (Perfect Game)

Nationally prominent high school baseball programs from state-to-state are built over time, of course, which can be somewhat of a tricky proposition in a landscape where roster turnover is an annual occurrence and success is dependent on the ebbs and flows associated with the performances and personalities of teenagers.

High school coaches usually enter the profession as young men, often right out of college, and try to find a place where they will try to either maintain a winning culture already in place or where they can leave their own legacy as a culture-builder, assuming they’re given sufficient time to do so.

Greg Simmons arrived at Charlotte (N.C.) Christian School in 1989 after spending the previous year as a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

He was the middle school/JV coach his first three years in Charlotte and became the head varsity coach in 1992, the year after the Knights won the first North Carolina Independent School Athletic Association (NCISAA) state championship in school history. But even after winning the state title in 1991, there was uncertainty surrounding the program, which was going to be in need of a rebuild.

“I came right out of coaching in college to coaching here and we didn’t have a field; we didn’t have anything,” Simmons said. “This is a school of faith and faith is very important to me, and Scripture says, ‘A nation without a vision will perish.’ And I always had a vision of building a program.

“Now, to be honest I didn’t know if it would be here,” he added with a laugh. “I told my wife not to unpack, we wouldn’t be here long because we were just awful.”

That awfulness didn’t linger for all that long. Simmons began getting some better players on board and set about creating a culture based simply on always out-working the other guy; it flourished.

The Knights returned to an NCISAA state championship game in 1999 and took home the title, one that opened the floodgates. The 1999 crown was the first of nine state championships in 11 years (1999-2009) , a run that included six straight from 2002-07.

They won another four straight Class 4A state championships from 2012-15, fell short for a three-year stretch but rallied to win yet another in 2019.

Today, as Simmons begins his 30th season as head of the Charlotte Christian School program, he told Perfect Game during a telephone conversation early this week he feels blessed that he’s had so many really good players who put that strong work ethic on display year after year.

And because the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 season (and continues to be an enduring menace), the Knights come into the 2021 campaign as the defending NCISAA Class 4A state champion; they are favored to go back-to-back.

They’ll also start the season holding down the No. 33 spot in the PG High School Preseason Top 50 National Rankings which makes Charlotte Christian the highest-ranked team in the PGHS Mid-Atlantic Region (Delaware, D.C., Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia).

There were eight seniors on the 2020 roster who weren’t able to see their final season through to a proper conclusion and only one, outfielder Brett Adams, went on to play college baseball (at Wingate U.). But, according to Simmons, the great thing about that class was that all eight of them had been in the program for years and each one of them knew their role within the team.

“Those guys had really worked hard and had earned their jobs and had significant roles,” he said. “That was hard to tell those guys that their season was over because they knew only one was going to go play in college.”

Championships can be won with players who fully understand their roles and get the most out of their abilities, and those attributes certainly apply to this year’s Knights’ roster; it also helps that these guys are extremely talented.

Simmons is counting on a core group of six seniors (class of 2021) and three elite juniors to do most of the heavy-lifting, while other underclassmen find their roles. Several of these current players were rostered on the 2019 state championship team.

The senior class is anchored by proven leaders in left-hander/first baseman Philip Abner (No. 86-ranked, Florida commit) and middle infielders JD Suarez (No. 342, UNC Charlotte) and Hayden Brandon (UNC Charlotte). Third baseman Will Farrell (t-1000, uncommitted), outfielder/first baseman Jalen Gibbs (HF, uncommitted) and corner infielder Mason Diel are the other upperclassmen.

“We have an incredible senior class,” Simmons said while noting that the talented Suarez will be a four-year starter, a real rarity at CCS.

When speaking of Abner – a 2020 PG National Showcase alum – Simmons said the powerful, 6-foot-1, 220-pounder is just as talented as the other three MLB Draft first-rounders he’s coached at CCS: right-handed pitchers Daniel Bard (2006 First Round), Luke Bard (’12) and Jackson Kowar (’18).

“His work ethic is impeccable, his character is off the charts; he’s just a fun kid to coach,” Simmons said. “You wouldn’t even know that this kid is touching 96 (mph).”

The trio of top juniors promise to be attention-grabbers as well. 2018 PG 14u Select Baseball Festival outfielder/right-hander Calvert Clark (No. 50, Clemson), infielder Judd Utermark (t-500, Ole Miss) and righty/corner infielder Everette Harris (t-500, N.C. State) are all expected to shine; Calvert and Harris will be the Nos. 2 and 3 starters, respectively, behind Abner.

The Knights began official practices on Monday and, as of now, the season-opener is slated for March 4. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t kept CCS students home, so they’re attending in-person class five days a week. All of the proper protocols and mitigation efforts are being followed and major outbreaks have been avoided.

“It’s not been easy; my players wear a mask every day in practice,” Simmons said. “The private schools were able to play football and basketball and that kind of gives our kids hope. They know that unless something crazy happens the spring season is going to (be played) and they’re excited about that.”

Charlotte Christian High School, which has been around for about 70 years, sits on a 60-acre site in Charlotte right alongside the elementary and middle schools, making it a K-12 campus. There are right around 450 students in the high school and more than 1,000 kids all together.

Some of the country’s best athletes have walked the halls at CCS through the years in addition to the three MLB first-rounders mentioned earlier. There have been more than a dozen former or current MLB, NBA, NFL and MLS performers at the school, perhaps none more recognizable than three-time NBA champion and two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry.

“That says a lot about our school,” Simmons said. “And our school does such a good job with the core values that we teach and it gives them an option. But I think a lot of those guys that are athletes, had we not been completely concerned about educating the whole child we wouldn’t have those kind of guys.

“All of those (alumni) were also extremely good in the classroom, and well-rounded,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “With Steph, I mean you can’t go to Davidson if you can’t read a little bit.”

Simmons oversees the baseball operations at three levels – middle school, JV and varsity – and makes the cuts at all three. The JV and varsity practice together every day so the same things are being taught and the players know what to expect. The program enjoys tremendous support from the school’s administration, which Simmons is quick to point out “makes things a lot easier.”

“Our guys have a huge buy-in because most of (them) have been at our school for years and they’ve seen the guys that came before them,” he continued. “And our facilities are ridiculous – we’ve been very blessed. We tell our kids all the time, like Scripture says, ‘Where much is given, much is expected.’

“The attention to detail that we have, you know, and there are certain things that we do that other people don’t do, and that’s OK. It’s part of our program and our kids know it and it’s passed on from one class to the next.”

When it comes to preseason conversations with his team, Simmons told PG he and his staff don’t talk about winning ballgames as much as much as they talk about winning the day. That approach has been especially helpful this year against the backdrop of a 2020 season that ended before it really began (the Knights won all five of their games that did get played).

Simmons is able to look his young charges directly in the eye and remind them that nothing is guaranteed –not another practice, not another game and, well, not even another day. In that respect, he said, the pandemic has forced his players to be even more focused on making the most of their opportunities because those could be gone just like that. It’s all about reaching the finish line and then crossing it ahead of everybody else.

“In our program, obviously, with the success that we’ve had the goal is to always get to that last weekend,” Simmons said. “That’s unsaid, but I think sometimes as coaches if all you talk about is winning a state title you lose sight of small things that can really trip you up along the way.”

It was to the benefit of everyone within the Charlotte Christian School community that the Simmons’s decided to unpack their belongings and stick around for the long haul 30-plus years ago. Fifteen state championships in a three-decade span is something to crow about, although no one associated with the Knights’ program will ever be caught doing that.

It’s high school baseball at its finest, an example of how to build a culture based on faith, family and fundamentals, trust and teamwork, camaraderie and coaching. Most of the players at CCS have known each other their entire lives and they understand the value of being amongst a group of guys who have been both classmates and teammates for as long as they can remember.

“I’ve noticed that these guys seem to be excited to get that part going and play in front of their peers and their parents and just do something special; a state championship anywhere is just an exciting thing to do,” Simmons said.

“And as a high school coach I get them every day so I get to talk to them about life. We talk about grades, about grandparents passing away and family issues; I’ve been very blessed to go to a lot of weddings.”

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