ASHEBORO – Entering the 2021 Coastal Plain League season, the Asheboro Copperheads knew qualifying for the postseason was going to be tough. With just two teams from each of the two divisions making the playoffs, teams could ill afford to have many hiccups during the long, grueling 10-week stretch.
Battling to the very end, the Copperheads came up just short in head coach Jeremy Knight’s first season as they finished with an overall record of 23-21. Asheboro wasn’t eliminated from postseason play until the second-to-last game of the season. There were hills and valleys along the way, but Knight said he learned a lot in his first season as the head coach for a collegiate summer league.
“The toughest task was getting to know the pitchers and whether they were starters or relievers or who could throw on back-to-back days,” said Knight, who was an assistant coach for two summers with the New Market Rebels of the Valley League prior to coming to the Copperheads. “Getting to know your team and figuring out what you have is a little easier with position players.”
The Copperheads were in the playoff chase until a late-season loss to the Hi-Toms.
“With just two teams making the playoffs in each division, it’s a tough hill to climb going into it,” Knight said. “There are so many variables with summer ball. Players are coming and going and the roster changes so much. Being able to stay in the race for the top two teams in the West until the next-to-last- game shows we were right on the doorstep of making the playoffs.”
Except for a brief stretch, offense wasn’t the problem. The team hit .274, which was third best in the 15-team league, with a team record 55 home runs, which was second only to High Point-Thomasville. University of North Carolina’s Will Stewart had nine home runs, Penn’s Andrew Hernandez had eight home runs and Penn’s Wyatt Henseler, a second-team all-CPL selection, had seven. In 19 games and just 54 at bats, Central Arizona’s Chase Valentine recorded six home runs. Valentine, who started the summer with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers of the MLB Draft League, spent the middle portion of the CPL year with the Copperheads, providing one of the biggest thrills the team experienced during the entire season.
Down by three runs to Wilmington on July 9, Valentine hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth and when Bradley Bott singled in the game-winning run in the same inning, the Copperheads had one of their most exciting come-from-behind wins in a long time.
“Chase was huge for us this summer,” Knight said.
Valentine finished with a .352 batting average and Justin Wilcoxen (.339), Henseler (.326) and UNC’s Patrick Alvarez (.314) all hit better than .300 with at least 10 games played.
The Copperheads scored a total of 292 runs for the season, which was the third highest behind High Point-Thomasville (303) and champion Savannah (322). The Copperheads had the second most hits in the season as a team (387) and their 619 total bases was second to the Hi-Toms (624).
Alvarez, a second-team all-CPL selection, provided a moment to remember when he singled in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning in front of a huge Fourth of July crowd for a 7-6 win over Martinsville.
“Those were some of our best wins, the walk-offs,” Knight said.
Pitching-wise, the Copperheads were led by first-team all-CPL Jared Matthewson, from UNCG. Mathewson finished 4-0 with a 2.59 ERA in 10 outings. He pitched 52 innings, giving up just 41 hits while striking out 57. Sewannee’s Logan Martin, Mason Meeks and Drury’s Michael Barnes all earned three wins during the summer.
Two relievers, Wake Forest’s Brennan Oxford and Penn’s Danny Heintz, finished the summer in the Cape Cod League with Oxford earning the win in the championship game for the Brewster Whitecaps.
Learning how to handle the pitching staff was a challenge, Knight said.
“The biggest difference from being a high school and a summer collegiate coach is dealing with the pitching staff,” Knight said.”That was my biggest hurdle, and being able to manage that many players. In summer ball, there’s a fine line between getting players reps in and winning games and you have to figure out how to do both.”
With one full season under his belt, Knight said he realizes what it will take to reach the next level in 2022.
“I feel it’s very important to have a mixture of every-day players, whether it’s JUCO, DII or DIII players with guys who are there to get some reps,” Knight said “The teams that have been most successful in this league have lots of experience coming in. We were probably one of the youngest teams in the entire league this past season.”
There were plenty of good things seen at McCrary Park during the 2021 Copperheads’ season. With the experience gained and lessons learned, 2022 promises to be even more exciting.