Text and photos by Richard Taylor
For two perfect spring days last weekend, the excitement of Ocracoke Dolphin baseball before unmasked fans replaced memories of Hurricane Dorian, the loss of the main campus building and nearly a year of pandemic-necessitated remote learning, including the cancellation of almost all team athletic activities.
Middle School Coach Bill Cole put his eighth-grade son Nicholas on the mound against visiting Hatteras at the home game May 7.
Cole the younger held the hapless Hurricanes scoreless for five innings, with the Dolphins winning 14-0.
“I have five or six kids I’ve been working with and it was just his turn to pitch,” Cole said after the game. “He didn’t throw that many pitches. The game was called before we got to six innings (mercy rule), so he was able to finish it off.”
Cole praised his team’s work ethics and eagerness to play well.
“The kids all came prepared to play, followed directions well and had a very good day,” he said.
Nicholas’ impressive shutout was a perfect early Mother’s Day present for his mom, Ocracoke School Principal Leslie Cole.
“The most important thing through the (COVID-19) pandemic and everything is that the kids have an opportunity to play baseball again,” Bill Cole explained. “It’s great to see the fans coming out to support us and for everyone to enjoy outdoor activities again.”
Owing to pandemic restrictions, the team had only nine practices before their first game on May 5 when the squad beat the Hurricanes away in extra innings, 8-7.
“I typically like to have three to four weeks of practice, to do stretches and build up arm strength, to work on hitting and pitching and to get the kids into a good mental attitude,” Cole said.
That first game saw only nine players.
“And they played really hard,” he said. “We did some good things defensively.”
Cole praised infielder Danny Palacios-Badillo for a hard-hit, two-run scoring double and first baseman Uriel Guerrero for running down a Hatteras player between first and second. Both are eight-graders.
John Kattenburg assists as a middle-school coach.
On Saturday, May 8, the Dolphin varsity squad played two games in the 2021 Cape Hatteras Sandlot Tournament in Buxton.
Powerhouse Bear Grass of Martin County crushed the Hurricanes in the morning opener, 18-3. The Dolphins then handed the host team another lopsided loss, 24-3 in the first afternoon game.
Walks, hits and Hatteras errors helped Ocracoke pile-up 14 runs in the third inning for a 23-5 win over the Hurricanes.
Freshman Maren Donlon, who moved up from middle school, contributed several hits to the varsity victory.
“Maren played awesome,” said head coach Jim McClain. “Having a female on a varsity team that’s typically male-dominated is great for the team. It’s also great for Maren.”
Noting that the team is playing better than ever, McClain was thrilled after the high-scoring victory over the Hurricanes.
“I don’t think this Ocracoke high school baseball program has ever had a victory over Hatteras,” he said. “We capitalized on all Hatteras’ mistakes and just had a big (third) inning.”
In the later championship game, Bear Grass pounded Ocracoke 11-1, but losing to the Bears did not bother McClain.
“Bear Grass is a dominant force, with a deep history of baseball,” he said. “They have a tremendous program. They’re always going to bring a game of a higher caliber, and that’s a good experience for us. We played a very good baseball game. Bear Grass just played a better game.”
Ocracoke had to change pitchers against Bear Grass several times as that game went on.
“What you saw with those pitching changes was governed by the state pitch count rules,” he said. “If a student athlete throws over a certain number of pitches in a day, then they are mandated to have a certain number of days rest.”
It’s all part of managing the team to have the best arms available.
McClain singled out Chandler O’Neal for catching the two games against Hatteras and Bear Grass.
“That’s a hard day’s work and he made some tremendous plays with the shortstop Jackson Strange, especially with runners on first and third,” McClain said. “I have never seen those two kids throw a ball that hard and that well to make that out at home that ended one of the innings.”
Freshman Damon Esham carried most of the pitching responsibilities against Hatteras and his younger brother, Dylan, closed out that game pitching.
Following the game, Chandler O’Neal and the Esham brothers were named to the All-Tournament team. Senior Parker Gaskill won the John Jacobs Memorial Award (as voted on by coaches) — a ceremonial miniature wooden bat.
McClain said his student athletes have learned to deal well with the rigors of traveling to away games.
“Kids on Ocracoke are unique,” he said. “When I first moved here and got involved in the baseball program, I was amazed that these kids would get on a bus at 10 in the morning, play a game at 5 in the afternoon and not get home until after midnight. They’re very used to it.”
On the bus, which McLain also drives, the team members further cement their bond.
“It adds a bit of camaraderie and esprit de corps to our group for having to take these extreme measures to play a competitive varsity sport here,” he said. “Every single player on this varsity team is a student athlete of high character. I’ve never had any issues with their behavior.”
The island has such well-developed school baseball programs because two recreation league teams feed players to the upper grades.
“We have over 70 kids playing baseball this spring on Ocracoke across high school, middle school and the two little league organizations,” he said. “That’s almost half of the entire student population.”
This dedicated coach somehow finds time to teach Ocracoke’s Little League 10- to 12-year-olds, the Oriels, in the Hatteras League. Local 8- to 10-year-old youngsters play as the Marlins. Their first games are Saturday (May 15) in Buxton.
Despite losing three seniors (Parker Gaskill, Dylan Esham and Christian Trejo), McLain is excited to have eight athletes moving up from middle school next spring.
“It’s going to be awesome,” he said.
The varsity Dolphins are 2-3 so far during this pandemic-shortened season. David Scott Esham and Jason Elicker assist McClain with coaching duties. Both teams practiced last spring but had no conference games due to the pandemic.