Youth camps, World Series appearances fueling a busy, but successful, Jets offseason

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SILER CITY — Despite being eight months out from their season-opener in February, Siler City’s own Boys of Summer had a jam-packed July.

Between a stint in Greensboro’s Colt Summer League to the school’s annual baseball-centric youth summer camp, the Jordan-Matthews Jets have had a productive summer behind the plate, preparing them for what will surely be an exciting spring campaign in 2023.

For those involved with J-M’s baseball program, the intensity of offseason activities serves one major purpose: team-building.

“It builds the ultimate thing, which is camaraderie and friendship,” John Headen, the Jets’ head baseball coach, told the News + Record. “When they get out of high school and go on to become men, they’re going to remember each other the rest of their lives and that’s a big deal. … At the end of the day, we’re trying to build a brotherhood.”

The Jets’ offseason activities began in June, when they started play in Greensboro Youth Baseball’s Colt Summer League, facing off against teams from around the Triad, including schools from both Guilford and Alamance counties.

J-M’s 16u team, coached by Headen, won the league “pretty easily,” he said, giving his team some much-needed experience against strong competition.

During his tenure at J-M, Headen has consistently tried to get his team to compete above its skill level, playing in tough offseason (or mid-season) tournaments and scheduling bigger, better schools throughout the non-conference season to give his team a challenge.

“You can’t be content with success,” Headen said. “You have to want to keep building upon it. If you’re ever content with the success you have, you’re done, you’re finished, you’re at the end of your journey.”

One perk of being a member of the Colt Summer League is the end-of-season All-Star team, called the Greensboro Green, which selects 16 players from teams around the league to compete on a local, regional and potentially national stage.

Four of the players selected are representing Chatham County, including J-M junior Ian McMillan and sophomore Quinn Woolford, along with Chatham Central juniors Wesley Clewis and Joaquin Gordon.

On July 18, the Green began a best-of-three series against a team from Beaver County, Pennsylvania, to decide the winner of the Colt League’s East Zone.

After a 15-4 win in Game 1, the Green followed with a 6-0 shut-out victory on July 22 in Game 2 to earn a spot in the 2022 Colt World Series, hosted this past weekend in Marion, Illinois.

On Monday night, the Green fell just short of a World Series title, dropping their semifinal matchup against defending champion Marion, 8-5, after a late comeback attempt was extinguished in the seventh inning in what was the Green’s second game of the day.

McMillan is no stranger to the big stage, having played in the 2021 Colt World Series alongside J-M teammates Conner Martin and Kelton Fuquay, where top-seeded Greensboro fell in a 4-3 upset loss in the tournament’s semifinals to Brownsville, Texas.

This year, Headen said McMillan was eager to compete again, hoping to avenge last season’s defeat and represent Chatham County.

“He made it a point that he really wanted to go back again this year because they’re playing for something besides themselves,” Headen said of McMillan. “They’re playing to represent something. … And when you’re representing somebody, and taking a little pride in what you’re doing, that outweighs everything.”

While the trip to Marion has provided all four Chatham student-athletes with an unforgettable experience at the highest level, it’s also given them a chance to work on their skills ahead of next spring’s baseball season.

For McMillan, that includes his pitching.

In Greensboro’s win-or-go-home game against Mexico on Monday afternoon — which it won, 9-8, in an extra-inning thriller after a walk-off hit by Woolford that scored his J-M teammate — McMillan threw 85 pitches across 6.0 innings, closing out a high-pressure game with near-perfection and allowing zero earned runs on five hits.

“Ian’s been getting his reps and moving around and his experiences are just going to add to some of his abilities,” Headen said. “He’s gotten to pitch a lot this summer and that’s something we’ve needed him to do, as well. Our older guys have gotten to be put into position to be leaders on the team this summer.”

Woolford also made his presence known throughout Greensboro’s run, ranking fourth on the Green in batting average (.353) during the World Series and coming up clutch in moments like the win against Mexico.

“Quinn has really grown so much since spring,” Headen said of his rising sophomore. “He came in with a sore shoulder and couldn’t play until about halfway through the season and never really got to pitch, but now he’s gotten to do some pitching this summer and has played some good ball.”

Bridging the gap

While a couple of members of the Jets were on their way to Illinois, many others were back home in Siler City, helping shape the future faces of Jordan-Matthews baseball.

Last week, from July 25 to July 28, J-M hosted its annual youth baseball summer camp, where more than 30 campers ranging from rising 1st through 9th graders got the opportunity to learn the sport’s basics, participate in technique-improving drills and have a little fun in the process with the Jets’ coaching staff and varsity counselors.

As youth summer camps typically go, the campers were split into different age groups in an effort to pair together players at similar developmental levels. Then, the campers focused on different parts of the game on different days, with Monday being dedicated to basic defensive strategy, Tuesday being centered around hitting and plate presence, Wednesday being geared toward situational baseball and Thursday, of course, being a morning full of scrimmages — the most exciting part of any camp.

“It’s fun to see the kids come in where some of them are more talented than others and just have more experience than others, but to see how much those kids develop in three days and really apply that on Thursday when we scrimmage,” Will Felder, assistant J-M baseball coach and lead counselor, told the News + Record. “Every kid learns in different ways. There’s no one way to play the game of baseball, so it’s good for these kids to see and hear a different way to do things and apply it to the way they play.”

Having coached for years in Charleston, S.C., and becoming accustomed to teaching middle schoolers over the last couple of years, Felder knew how to keep the campers engaged when their minds inevitably began to wander during some of the not-so-thrilling drills in the scalding-hot sun.

His solution: make a game out of anything.

Whether it’s turning base-running drills into relay races or transforming throwing and catching exercises into pickle drills with incentives, the easier an activity is to morph into a game or competition, the better.

“If you make anything a game or a competition for young boys, they’re going to want to compete and beat whoever they’re playing,” Felder said. “If you make it fun, if you make a game out of something, they’ll do just about anything you want them to.”

While the camp mainly benefited the campers that signed up, Felder said the players from J-M that helped out as counselors undoubtedly got something out of it themselves: confidence.

“It’s really cool also, as one of the members of the coaching staff, to see a kid who maybe didn’t know something that well in the fall of last year and now they’re teaching what they learned to someone else,” Felder said. “It’s really fun because that’s them developing themselves more. If you can teach something, you can do it better yourself.”

Despite the camp taking place on J-M’s campus, it wasn’t limited to future Jets.

Felder said that the attendees also included students that may eventually end up at Chatham Charter, Chatham Central or any of the county’s other high schools, serving the camp’s primary purpose of growing the game and bridging the gaps within Chatham’s baseball community.

“It’s really nice to see what the future might hold,” Felder said, “but you see different kids from different schools and, at that point, you just want those kids to have a good time and you want to develop everybody, but you do find those that will be future Jets and you say, ‘Oh, we might have that come in here’ and that’s really great to look forward to.”

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at victorgrayh10@gmail.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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