Gardner key to Redskins’ success
HURRICANE, W.Va. — When wrapping your mind around Joel Gardner’s quantum leap from bit player to major contributor at Hurricane, it helps to know the situation.
Gardner has improved greatly from his freshman to his sophomore season, but it took the right opportunity and the right set of teammates to make the transition work as well as it has.
After getting just 25 at bats and pitching only 42/3 innings last year on a senior-dominated squad, Gardner has turned on the talent and helped Hurricane get back to Appalachian Power Park in Charleston to defend its Class AAA championship.
The Redskins (31-4) were accorded the No. 2 seed and square off with No. 3 Hedgesville (25-8) at approximately 7:50 p.m. Friday in the semifinals. It marks the fourth state tournament appearance for Hurricane in six years; in that stretch, the Redskins captured AAA titles in 2014 and 2018.
Gardner certainly warrants a good deal of credit for helping make it happen. The sophomore third baseman and pitcher has gone off the charts with his performance.
He leads the team in hitting (.467), home runs (6), runs batted in (50), doubles (13) and has also become the team’s No. 2 pitcher. On the mound, he’s 8-0 with a 1.36 ERA and 60 strikeouts against only 13 walks. He’s allowed but 32 hits in 461/3 innings.
Hard to believe he hit only .280 last season (7 for 25) with eight strikeouts, appearing in just 17 of 38 games. But then again, the Redskins were stocked with experienced talent - they had 10 seniors and most of them were starters.
“Obviously, Joel was a freshman last year,″ said Hurricane coach Brian Sutphin, “and was the only freshman who dressed varsity for us. He had a stretch where he was getting to play, and he did a good job for us - swung the bat well and got a chance to pitch.
“But again, we were a senior-laden team and there were certainly guys in front of him. But to his credit, he really worked, and he wasn’t alone. He had guys with him that pushed each other. He became that much hungrier and came to the field every day with thoughts of getting better and spent the off-season training and getting faster and stronger. He really came into his own.″
The 16-year-old Gardner prefers to think he learned his craft from the businesslike approach of last year’s upperclassmen.
“I think it’s just that last year, we had a bunch of good, solid leaders from those seniors guys,″ Gardner said. “They were great guys and took me under their wing. I was young, just a freshman, and they helped me out a lot. I walked into the high school and they were always there to help me out - with the speed of the game and (dealing) with the bigger games, sectionals, regionals.″
Sutphin attributes Gardner’s willingness to learn as a big reason for his success.
“Joel’s a great teammate,″ Sutphin said. “He’s had guys around him who took him under their wing when he was a freshman and they were seniors, and he watched them. Now guys like Tyler Cox, Austin Dearing, J.T. Cooper, they’ve kind of put their arms around him and go to work with him, and he’s just really blossomed.
“He’s certainly a really talented player, but when that kind of talent meets with the work he’s put in, great things can happen.″
Gardner, for his part, deflects a lot of the praise directed toward him and dishes it back to his teammates.
“Having our defense behind me (when I’m pitching) is a big help,″ he said. “It’s helped me out a ton. If I get ground balls, they’ll make the plays. We’ve got a lot of guys we can put in big spots who can produce, and a lot of depth in the bullpen, too, to help out. And the offense is just outstanding, always driving in runs.
“It says that we play as a team and not just as individuals. We just work hard, train our butts off in the off-season to get where we are. We just want to keep getting better until the state tournament starts.″
Sutphin noted that while Gardner has played mostly third base and pitcher, he is capable of filling other spots if needed.
“He could play about anywhere,″ Sutphin said. “He does a good job behind the plate, in the infield. I think he’s really kind of taken to heart the idea of trying to improve, where he’s always trying to raise the bar and move forward.″