The Catawba Indians are coming off of a magical 2015 campaign that ended with their first trip to the DII Championship Game.
It was a season that saw Craig Brooks have one of the more remarkable seasons in recent memory, going 9-1 with a 1.45 ERA while striking out 158 batters in 99 innings. He translated those numbers to a multitude of awards — such as the Brett Tomko Award and the Josh Willingham Award — which got him national attention and eventually landed with the Chicago Cubs.
And then there was Will Albertson.
Albertson was the offensive sensation that transferred from Campbell University in DI. Not wanting to miss a year of eligibility — and needing more time to settle in behind the plate — Albertson came to Catawba and took DII by storm. He led all of DII in batting average hitting .467, finished third in home runs with 26 (both a school and South Atlantic Conference record) and second with 91 RBI.
“I left Campbell because I wasn’t catching much,” Albertson said. “I was playing everyday, but I was playing more outfield. I felt that catching would help me get to the next level. They [Catawba] were a DII program that had a catching need in their priorities and had a really good program with a winning tradition. That’s something I wanted to be a part of.”
The then-junior catcher wasted no time etching himself into Indians lore, as he played a vital part in their run to the championship. Specifically, Albertson added some fireworks in dramatic fashion, as he slammed a walk-off home run against Mount Olive to get them into the Regional Finals against North Georgia — a game they would win behind more dramatics as a wild pitch in the ninth inning sent them to the championships.
“We had played Mount Olive twice earlier last year and they beat us twice,” Albertson recollected of his walk-off. “They had a really good team with really good players and a few draft picks. I had some tough at bats in that game.
“There was a runner on second. I was just trying to get something to right field and move the runner up and do my job, not trying to do to much. It was a fast ball — a little in and a little up — and I kind of reacted to it. It was real exciting, I got chills thinking about it right now. That’s definitely up there along with the game after that winning the regionals. I can’t really ask for more than that.”
After their loss to the DII Baseball powerhouse University of Tampa, Albertson headed to the Coastal Plain League.
“It was my second year there,” Albertson said. “It was a lot of fun, it’s a really good league. I got to meet new players — Division I guys — and play throughout the summer as well.”
It was while in the CPL that the MLB Draft had begun. Will watched his teammate land with the Cubs in the seventh round and still held out hope that he, too, would hear his name called. As the rounds progressed, and with Albertson still waiting, he headed to the ball park to get ready for his game.
“I was on my way to a game -- it was around the 30th round -- and we hadn’t heard anything yet,” Albertson said. “I was actually stretching in the bullpen and one of my teammates came running down and told me I got picked by the Yankees. It was pretty exciting, it was a roller coaster day for sure.”
When all was said and done, Albertson was selected in the 40th round by the New York Yankees. He wouldn’t be tendered a contract — as many draft picks selected that late are not — and decided to head back to Catawba for his senior year.
“I get to play one more year for Coach [Jim] Gantt,” Alberston said. “I had a lot of fun here last year. Obviously we went to the National Championship game and lost, so I felt like we had some unfinished business here. I thought about it a little bit, but it was a pretty easy decision for me to come back to school because it could happen again next year.”
This season, Catawba entered the year as the preseason No. 2, with Albertson getting much attention as the favorite for the National Player of the Year Award. He was recently named to the Preseason Golden Spikes Watch List as well. The Indians opened the season slowly, as they faced one of the toughest schedules the program has ever seen.
“I think there are a lot of high expectations, people are looking for big things from us,” Albertson said. “We play a tough schedule, Coach Gantt keeps preaching to us that this is the toughest he’s ever had here. Everybody is getting used to each other now, just trying to build that team chemistry and get used to new guys. Things are shaping up for us right now, I think as the season goes on were only going to get better.”
While Albertson’s strength lays in his bat, his selflessness shines through in everything he does. His play is defined not just by late inning heroics, but the innate ability to put his teammates in the best possible position not only to win, but to succeed on an individual level. This is exemplified most recently when one of the nation’s most feared power hitters moved from the heart of the order to the top of it.
“I’m just trying to help my team win games,” Albertson said. “I recently just got moved to the leadoff spot instead of the three hole, it’s a different approach to things.
“I had guys last year like Blake Houston and T.J. Wharton that really put me in good situations to be successful. Now with me being on base a lot and walking a lot, I get to give back and help put the guys behind me in a position to be successful as well by setting the table for them.”
He has also found himself taking on a new role this season. Last year, Albertson was the “new guy”, just looking for his place on the squad, not wanting to step on any toes and simply help the Indians continue their success. This season, amongst a team of new faces, Albertson is the seasoned veteran and the senior leader this team needs.
“It’s different,” Albertson said. “I’ve never been an out spoken leader. I like to lead by example, just do the right things and be consistent on work ethic. I feel like I have to be more vocal as one of the few seniors, so it’s a role that I’m going to have to come into.”
Albertson is also humble. He values his opportunity in his senior year as an opportunity to improve his game and get drafted again. He knows his strength is in his bat, but the past few seasons have seen many of the nation’s brightest catching prospects change positions once drafted. Albertson however feels with the right work ethic, his path to the draft could be paved by improved catching skills.
“I think that another reason I was taken late last year was my defense,” Albertson admitted. “Not being as polished as I could have been. But I feel like I have gotten better behind the plate. I started throwing better, control the run game more and working real hard on my receiving skills. I’m working hard to prove that I can catch.
“I think I work with my pitching staff pretty well, and I think I do a pretty good job of blocking and receiving. One thing I need to develop more is my arm strength behind the plate.”
Now, the Indians are back on track. They have won their last three games, and those visions of returning to the championships are starting to become more in reality’s grasp once again. They are set for a big three-game bout with Anderson this weekend, which could give them the boost they need in the SAC.
Of course, there is that three-game series down in Tampa looming in April.
“We’re really taking it one day at a time, not trying to look ahead,” Albertson said. “Obviously everybody is excited about going down to Tampa, but like I said we’re really focused on the present. We’re just taking things day by day.”