PILOT MOUNTAIN — Coach Barry Hall of East Surry understands that trips to the state championship only come along so often.
Hall has more than 700 career wins, but will make just his third appearance in the state finals — after finishing runner-up the previous two times.
The Cardinals (30-0) will play a best-of-three championship series against the Whiteville Wolfpack, starting Friday evening.
Hall’s players are outspoken about the fact they’d like to see him win it all this weekend.
“He’s only been here three times in his 39 years,” senior pitcher Scott Meredith said. “It would be extremely special to be the only team to ever win him a state championship. It would mean a lot to us and to him of course.”
Hall has certainly coached great teams over the years — including the 1982 and 2007 clubs that reached the state finals. He has coached East Surry to 14 conference championships and 10 conference tournament titles.
“He’s a great coach,” junior outfielder Dustin Rodgers said. “You know it has to be special for him. Winning the first one for him would be pretty exciting.”
The scoreboard at Barry Hall Field displays the Cardinals’ multiple conference and tournament championships. Hall has also been to five Western regional finals in his career.
From a baseball standpoint, it seems as if only the state crown has eluded Hall. Hall appreciates the fact the players want to win one for him.
“That means a lot,” Hall said. “We try to keep them on an even keel. I know deep down they’d like to win one for me. I want it for them.”
But Hall isn’t consumed with winning, and his career certainly won’t be defined by his win total or number of state rings.
“If it happens, and I go out this way, and bring (a state championship) back to Pilot Mountain, it would be nice,” Hall said. “If I’m alive 10 years from now and if I don’t, I’ve got enough memories and I’ve been blessed that either way I’ll be all right.”
East closed out its best-of-three Western regional final series against Hayesville in two games — winning 9-1 at home and completing the sweep with a 4-0 road victory in Game 2.
Hall is widely recognized as the tough, old-school baseball coach.
That’s only partially true.
“They see me as hard-nosed, but we have a lot of fun,” Hall said. “We have a good time. They know when to be ready and get their self ready. They are totally focused. When they got to practice (Saturday) we could tell they were ready.”
Hall’s teams are always expected to hustle and be of high character.
Disciplinary issues are dealt with swiftly — whether on the field or in the classroom, where Hall taught for years.
“These are student-athletes. The student comes first,” Hall said. “If the teacher does have a problem, they can call me, and we will straighten that problem out.”
Rarely has Hall had any reason for concern over this year’s close-knit team.
Several players noted some of the coach’s one-liners during practices or games — from “It’s there for the taking” and “Get him, Jerry!” referencing assistant coach Jerry Freeman. If players don’t get an earful straight from Hall, they”ll hear indirectly through one of his assistant coaches.
You don’t have to be around Hall for long to see his lighter side — whether it’s joking with the players or spending time with his grandchildren after ball games.
He has an ongoing competition with junior outfielder Lucas Koons during batting practice. If Koons hits a home run, Hall agreed to buy popsicles for the team. If he doesn’t hit one out of the park, Koons brings Hall a cup of coffee.
“He’s a legend, and he’s great guy too,” senior catcher Madison Chilton said.
Meredith said Hall knows when to joke around and when to be serious.
“The day before the game he’s extremely serious, and he wants you focused,” Meredith said.
Junior pitcher Tyler Marion transferred to East Surry this season. He said it would be great to win a state title for Hall.
“He’s been here a long time and he deserves one,” Marion said. “He’ll get on to us a time or two, but he’s a really good guy.”
Hall is second in state history in wins behind Ron Vincent, Greenville-Rose. With his total now at 708, Hall holds record for most baseball wins at one school.
“He deserves it all,” junior outfielder Alec Wilson said. “He’s worked his butt off year after year. He says he’s a mild-mannered person. He’ll be on you one second, then your best friend the next.”
A trademark of Hall’s teams over the years is small ball. If runners get on first and second, there’s a good chance the next guy is going to bunt to move them over.
It’s a strategy that puts pressure on the defense to make plays in the infield. Small ball also means guys sometimes have to sacrifice an out for the team.
“Coach Hall says ‘I don’t care how far you hit it, I’m going to bunt you,” senior first baseman/pitcher Seth Brim said.
No one does it better or more often then senior second baseman Weston Payne, who bats second after junior leadoff man Logan Sheets.
“Logan Sheets gets on first base, Weston Payne moves him over, then the 3-4-5 hitters punch runs in,” Chilton said.
Marion (.395), Wilson (.361) and Chilton (.444) have done most of the damage, but East has a team that can bring the lumber up and down the lineup.
Wilson hit a two-run home run in the Cardinals’ come-from-behind victory over Walkertown this season. Chilton has hit several home runs during a stretch that includes the conference tournament and state playoffs.
Hall just smiles when he talks about the Cardinals’ style of play.
“Our kids know from day one we are small ball. It drives our fans crazy,” Hall said. “The Hayesville game, Seth Brim hits a sharp line drive. The next time up we’ve got first and second. He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, bunt?’ It doesn’t matter if you just hit a home run, you might bunt next time. You can’t play here unless you buy into that.”
This year’s team doesn’t have the inflated ego types one would expect in a 30-0 team. The Cards pull for each other and they’re sold on the coaching philosophy.
Hall said a number of former players have come by to congratulate the team during the run this season. Many have attended the Cardinals’ state playoff games. Some have stopped by the field before practice to speak with Hall.
It’s a reminder that Hall teaches so much more than the game of baseball. There are life lessons that last well beyond the time kids graduate high school.
“Wins and losses are little things compared to your kids coming back years later,” Hall said.
It’s a mentality that has coaches, players and fans across the state pulling for him to win the whole thing this weekend.
“He’s had such an amazing career,” assistant coach Chad Freeman said. “Whether we do or don’t (win) it’s not going to detract from him as a coach or as a person. Everyone knows the accomplishments he has. But it would be kind of nice to have that crowning jewel to go with the career. That way he can say he’s accomplished everything.”
East has been ranked No. 1 in the Class 1A baseball polls for most of the season. The Cards haven’t lost since last year’s fourth-round playoff exit to eventual state champion South Stanly; aside from that loss, the Cards have won 51 of 52 games dating back to the middle of last year.
Hall has said that he would like to coach one more year after the season is over. One has to wonder if he might step away after this year if the Cards claim the state title.
This year’s team, with six seniors, will play their hearts out for the veteran coach.
“I don’t want to see tears in their eyes this year,” Hall said. “I want to see them have a great time. If we go out and win a couple, bring the first (championship) back, I guarantee you when that bus rolls in here there will be a bunch of people waiting for us.”