RALEIGH — Troy Strange will try to accomplish something not even longtime coach Ron Powell could do: win a Junior American Legion state championship in an odd-numbered year.
Powell won five state Junior Legion titles as coach of the Cary Post 67 Bulls, but he moved up to coach the Senior Legion team this year. That put Strange in charge, and he’s aware of his ironic nomenclature.
“This is an odd year, of course,” Strange said. “So I guess a guy named Strange, what else could you do?”
Strange, 44, has been with the program for seven years, but what is new for 2013 is the advance of Post 67’s other Junior Legion team, the Colts, to the area qualifying tournament.
It’s the first time in the six-year history of the Colts that they’ve earned a trip to the state tournament, impressive given Post 67 puts together the Bulls team first, and the remaining players form the Colts.
But the Bulls, started in 1994, are looking for more than just a berth in the tournament. Winning the state title five times brings high expectations, and Strange believes his team is up to the task.
First baseman John Voltz is the “spark plug,” as he’s batting over .500 and playing solid defense. All 18 of the Bulls are selected as catchers, middle infielders or center fielders and then adapted to other positions.
“You stick with the program, and it works,” Strange said. “Coach Powell has put a stamp on a team. When you have a well-oiled machine, it’s just putting the key in it, turn it and let it roll.”
Drawing from rising freshmen to rising seniors at Green Hope, Athens Drive and Cary Christian, the Junior Bulls have a 25-6 record, including 16-3 in the Area 1 conference, and they haven’t lost two Legion games in a row all season.
They started the tournament Saturday in Rocky Mount, hoping to be one of two teams to advance to the state tournament next weekend in Kernersville.
One afternoon spent around the Bulls and Colts is enough to learn that Post 67 is about more than winning baseball games. It’s about preparing teenagers for life after high school.
“Coach Powell has taught me so much, more so about the development of the kids than as opposed to the development of the player,” Strange said. “It’s not about wins and losses in the game, it’s about wins and losses of the kids.”
Powell has only three rules for players: Be on time and where you’re supposed to be. Respect the game and all of its participants (including umpires and spectators). And bunt strikes.
There are no punishments from coaches for anyone who breaks the rules; instead, the players learn how to deal with any issues.
“This year, they kind of got it earlier than normal,” Strange said. “We don’t have any jerks or any of the normal things that can plague a team. Not that I won’t allow it, but the guys won’t allow it. They police themselves.”
Often, the big questions aren’t about who covers second base on a bunt. They’re more like, “Where should I go to college?”
“They’re questions you wouldn’t think you’d get from a baseball team,” Strange said. “You’re getting life questions. They’re looking for that next thing.
“Hopefully, five, six, seven years down the road, they’re good citizens, husbands, fathers. Hopefully, they’re productive people in society. That’s really all it is.”