The 2017 season got off to a rough start for the Owen Warhorses on the baseball diamond.
While a deep run in the state playoffs by the basketball team created problems on the mound for head coach Anthony Lee, the Warhorses struggled to find their offense out of the gate. But midway through March, as the weather began to warm up, the offense did too.
"So far it's been a roller-coaster ride," said Lee, who is in his 17th season as the team's head coach. "Just look at the scores."
The Warhorses opened the season with a 17-4 loss on the road against Pisgah. Four nights later they fell to 0-2 after hosting West Henderson, which outpaced Owen 14-2.
"The basketball season ran a little long this year," Lee said. "A couple of our pitchers didn't come into the season where they really needed to be, so I didn't want to put those guys out on the mound, have them throw a bunch of pitches, and then end up with sore arms."
Senior pitcher and shortstop Brian Bartlett, who earned M.V.P. honors in the Blue-White All-Star basketball game the day after holding conference foe Mountain Heritage to one run for his first win of the baseball season, eased his way into pitching shape.
Lee has also had to adjust to the North Carolina High School Sports Athletic Association's new pitch-count rules, which allow a pitcher no more than 105 pitches in a single outing and require four calendar days to pass between outings for anything over 76 pitches.
"We've used a lot different pitchers early," Lee said. "We've been trying to figure out who are going to be the guys we turn to when it's game time. Last year I went into games thinking I'd need two pitchers each game, now I go in thinking three."
The Warhorses gave up 48 runs in their first three games. They entered their first Western Highlands Conference game against Mitchell with an 0-3 record, but held the Mountaineers' offense in check, picking up the 5-2 victory.
Owen picked up back-to-back wins for the first time this season with a 6-1 win over Mountain Heritage in Burnsville. That streak was snapped with a 6-3 loss to Madison on March 21.
"We played pretty good against Madison," Lee said. "They just did everything right."
The Warhorses rebounded, outscoring Avery and Hendersonville 26-0 in the next two games, but the bats disappeared against Polk on March 28, with Owen managing to score only one run at home in an 11-1 loss.
"That was a tough loss, we just didn't show up," Lee said. "I'm still trying to figure out where this group is. We have a lot of potential but we're not producing consistently."
Lee's analysis proved to be spot on, when his Warhorses exploded for 12 runs in a win over East Henderson on the road just 24 hours after losing to the Wolverines. Owen finished the first 10 games of a 22-game season with 5-5 overall record. The team will need to do more if it wants to be successful in what Lee calls a "competitive conference."
"We have five teams in the conference that are capable of beating one another on any given night," Lee said. "We cannot take another shovel full of dirt out of that hole we've dug for ourselves."
That means the Warhorse must continue to improve in all aspects of the game.
"We preach to them to take the right mental approach at the plate," Lee said. "When we get runners on base we have to bring those guys around to score."