HOPE MILLS — Methodist University baseball coach Tom Austin sits behind home plate in a folding chair at South View High School for most of the Hope Mills Boosters American Legion games and watches on as the top players under 19-years-old in the area play on the diamond.
Aside from his son Jacob, who plays for Hope Mills, there’s one player that he’s kept an extra close eye on this summer. After coaching Matthias Carter, a former Purnell Swett standout, all season for the Monarchs, the plays he’s made in his last summer of Legion baseball continue to catch the eye of the tenured coach, much like he did when Austin first saw him play.
“I was fortunate enough to see him two years ago, my son was playing with a (EvoShield) Canes team and Matthias was playing on a Lumberton travel team down in Myrtle Beach. This kid kept making all the plays, making all the plays and making all the plays. So obviously you go over to the coach and say ‘Who is that, and how old is he?’” Austin said. “That’s when it all started.
“There’s a steadiness about how he plays. He’s not an emotional roller coaster. He plays the game at a really high level and he maintains that really high level.”
The way Carter glides around the infield making plays with his glove and arm was the reason that Austin put his trust in him and started him at shortstop during his freshman campaign.
When Carter found out that he would start at shortstop, he was taken back, but the 2016 Purnell Swett graduate consistently was one of the most productive players for the Monarchs this year as he started in all 38 games.
“I was amazed,” he said of being a freshman starter. “Being in the leadoff spot hitting, I was shocked. Through the first couple innings of the first game I was thinking that there’s no way I should be here, but I just got used to it and had to start delivering. At the end of the day, it’s just baseball.”
Carter was near the top of the team in every batting statistic this year, including a .343 batting average, a team-high with 39 runs scored, 10 doubles, five triples and 12 stolen bases and also fielded .948. Through this, he was named All-USA South honorable mention. The defensive numbers are what Austin said freshmen struggle with in their first year, but that wasn’t the case for Carter.
Austin knew Carter’s defense would make the transition to college baseball, but he wondered how the bat would come along with the new level of talent. Those worries were short-lived.
“I felt like right from the get-go that the kid could play defense,” Austin said. “The pleasant surprise has been the kind of offense he has brought to the table.”
The Hope Mills boosters have noticed the carryover, both at the plate and on defense, from Cater’s impressive freshman season, and have used him to help get the team to where it is now as one of the top teams in Area II. The influence of the Methodist coaching staff, especially Austin, is apparent when comparing how Carter looks on the field now as apposed to a summer ago.
“You can see a lot more Coach Austin in him. He hits the ball hard and hits it to the middle and backside,” Hope Mills assistant coach Cecil Combs said. “If he is not the best player in Area II, he’s one of them.”
Carter has played as one of the top players in Area II with a .507 batting average this summer, with nine doubles and a team-high 31 runs scored. The sure-handed defense has came with him this well, fielding at a .937 percentage.
Austin wanted Carter to continue to focus on his approach at the plate and cut down the number of strikeouts this summer with the Boosters to continually progress now through his final three years with the program.
At first, Carter was a little uneasy at the thought of his college coach being there in the stands at almost every American Legion game this summer in worries that he would be overly involved with his growth, but that hasn’t been the case.
“I thought I might have someone in my ear, but it’s probably good for me because he sees all the stuff that I do wrong. The stuff I can’t see,” Carter said. “He corrects me on it and makes me an even better player.”
When signing to Methodist in college, Carter knew it would be a good idea to be close to home, and the feelings of being just a drive from Pembroke to Fayetteville to allow his family to attend every game are even stronger after experiencing it for the first year.
“The best thing I could’ve done was stay close to home,” Carter said. “My family was at every game supporting me, and even had other parents come up. I loved it there.”
Being in the same area for most of his baseball career, Carter has seen how the game has changed, especially making the jump from high school to college.
College baseball, to him, is more mental than any other level he has played at with such a grueling schedule. Carter feels like he as one thing that helps him manage the mental aspect.
“It’s a whole other game when you get to college. It’s crazy but you just have to be committed,” he said. “It wasn’t hard for me because I love the game. I love baseball and doing good in school. That’s just me.”
That love of the game is what fans, teammates and coaches have noticed in how he plays.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.