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A special time revisited

Fike’s state 4-A baseball title capped championship year of 1967-68

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The ingredients of a championship season — talent, skill, coaching, perseverance, dedication, timing and luck — can be found in any sport, along with the epoxy that holds them all together: Belief and confidence in the ability to get it done.

That was the formula for the Fike High baseball team in the spring of 1968 when the Cyclones defied the odds and captured the second state championship for the school that year. The Cyclones won the first of their three straight North Carolina High School Athletic Association football titles in the fall and six of the 21 members of the baseball were integral figures on that 1967 Fike championship football team.

It was a special time for a school that was in its 10th year of existence and has only won one baseball state title since, in 1999.

“When I look back on it, it was just an unbelievable period of time that we as guys, coaches and fans and parents and everyone else, it was one of those things that happened and you think, ‘How in the world did this happen?’” said Lynn Daniell, who was the Cyclones senior shortstop and had been the quarterback on the football team. “It was really the result of, I think, a lot of hard work and guys who played together and loved each other and knew each other and everything just seemed to come together at the right time.”

Fifty years is a long time to remember the particulars of that championship season, but the majority of the players and managers from the team along with head coach Gilbert Ferrell and assistant coach Ted Perry will hold a reunion Thursday night. The team will be introduced before Fike’s Senior Night game against Northern Nash on the field bearing Ferrell’s name where he coached for 21 seasons, then retire to Pup’s Steakhouse for an evening of memories and laughter.

“In some ways it seems like 150 years ago and others it seems like yesterday,” said Ferrell, who will turn 86 in a few weeks.

FERRELL THE GUIDING LIGHT

While there was plenty of talent and skill up and down the 1968 Fike roster, it was the calm hand of Ferrell that guided them to the proverbial mountaintop.

“Coach Ferrell was a confident but gentle person. I don’t want to say he was laid back but he was close to that,” Daniell said. “Of course, when Coach Ferrell got mad, you knew it. You didn’t want to be in that position when he really got upset.”

A Wilson native, Ferrell was a senior member of the 1950 Charles L. Coon High baseball team coached by Irv Dickens that lost in the NCHSAA AA championship series to Gastonia. Ferrell revealed that he was the losing pitcher for the Cyclones in the decisive game 3, a series that was part of a glorious stretch of high school baseball in Wilson.

Leon Brogden’s Coon teams won state titles in 1943 and 1944 before four Wilson teams (1948, 1950, 1952, 1953) lost in the championship game or series. Aside from Rock Ridge’s state 1-A runner-up in 1959, Lucama’s state 1-A championship in 1960, Elm City's state 1-A crown in 1964 and Saratoga Central’s 1-A title in 1971, Fike’s 1968 team was the first from Wilson to play for a state title since 1953.

THE PLAYOFF ROAD

It didn’t come easy for the Cyclones, who were fortunate to have won the championship in a season in which their Eastern 4-A Conference received two berths to the NCHSAA playoffs. On alternating years, the league would just get one, which would have gone to regular-season champion Wilmington New Hanover in 1968.

“And that ended up being a blessing,” said Ferrell.

Playing exclusively on the road in the postseason, the Cyclones won big at Winston-Salem Reynolds in the first round, got a no-hitter from star pitcher Bobby Johnston to beat Greensboro Grimsley in the semifinals and then came back from a first-game loss to outlast host High Point Central in the best-of-three state championship series.

It was the inevitable conclusion to a season that many of the Fike players envisioned from the beginning, believing they were worthy of winning it all.

“I don’t think there was any question in some of our minds that we were,” said John Wooten, who was a junior outfielder and pitcher.

Wooten said the foundation was laid when several future Cyclones played on state championship teams for the Wilson Boys and Girls Club coached by Bradford Barnes. The future Fike players on those teams included Kenny Pridgen, Larry Barnes, Harold Wilkerson, Harold Davis, Wooten and Johnston.

Pridgen, a junior first baseman in 1968, said that instilled a winning attitude that persisted throughout high school.

“My daddy always told me that the difference between us and the other teams is that we knew we were going to win and the other teams thought they could win,” Pridgen said.

JOHNSTON THE STAR PITCHER

While Wilkerson played baseball and football at Davidson College after finishing the season as one of the Cyclones’ top hitters and Daniell was a gifted athlete who went on to play football at North Carolina State University, the real star of the 1968 Cyclones was Johnston, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound left-hander with a blazing fastball and a dangerous curveball.

Johnston won 11 games that spring with pro scouts often positioned in the crowd at Fike games. He struck out 17 batters, then a school record, in the Cyclones’ final regular-season game — an 8-1 victory over Raleigh Enloe — and fired a no-hitter in the state 4-A semifinals against Grimsley, a squad Ferrell described as “the best ball club in the state.”

Johnston, who died in an automobile accident in 1988, played two years at Atlantic Christian (now Barton) College before spending parts of four seasons in the minor leagues.

“He was an exceptional talent. He could throw it with speed and had a good curveball,” Ferrell said.

But Johnston was also somewhat of a character — a big, brawny teenager who could be unpredictable on or off the field.

“A typical left-hander,” Ferrell said with a chuckle.

Johnston’s volatility came to fruition in the first game of the championship series at High Point Central. He left the game after two innings after developing arm trouble even though the game was tied 1-1. The Black Bisons touched reliever Lonnie Lamm for four runs over four innings en route to a 5-3 win.

“I didn’t jump all over him or anything but I knew that he wasn’t with us that day,” said Ferrell, who took a “gamble” by sitting Johnston for game 2 and putting Harold Davis in left field, where Johnston usually played when Wooten was pitching.

“That took a big bat out of the lineup but I had to get his mind right and it worked,” Ferrell said. “John pitched a great game and we got enough runs to win.”

WOOTEN’S GEM

Indeed, Wooten pitched the game of his young life in Fike’s 5-2 win. Daniell hit a three-run home run to give the Cyclones the lead for good in the third inning and Wooten did the rest.

“You’ve got to go with what you’ve got and he had performed well in the year and I knew that if we were going to do anything, he’d have to win a game and, sure enough, he did,” Ferrell said. “And it was a big one and he deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Wooten swears he doesn’t recall much about the game.

“Very little! It was 50 years ago!” Wooten said.

Pridgen was succinct in his appraisal of Wooten’s performance that day and throughout the season, saying: “Obviously, we probably had the best pitcher in the state in Bobby Johnston but I don’t think we could have won without John Wooten or Harold Wilkerson.”

THE MARCH TO GLORY

Wilkerson was a clear leader on a team that had plenty of upfront players.

“Harold was kind of the cornerstone as the catcher and leader,” Daniell said.

An outstanding student, Wilkerson defied the stereotype by being a tough-as-nails competitor on the baseball diamond and football field. But that characteristic wasn’t exclusive to him. Third baseman David Dildy was also a reliable stick and glove while Barnes was a dependable second baseman. Right fielder Gray Gaskins led the team in batting average while sophomore center fielder John Such was a table setter at the top of the batting order. Rounding out the team were Glenn Batten, Doug Cayton, George Wilkerson, Lonnie Lamm, Clark Davis, Branch Benton, John Gillette, Butch Boyette, Mike Foster, Tom Lafferty and Charles Holley. The team managers were Wayne Carpenter, John Pike and Mickey Bridgers.

Johnston, Wilkerson, Pridgen, Daniell and Gaskins were named to the All-East team after the season while Such, Wooten, Barnes and Dildy attained honorable mention.

Fike started the 1968 season splitting a pair of non conference games with Northern Nash, as the Knights handed the Cyclones one of their four losses, which came on a combined five runs. The 3-2 loss at Jacksonville in the sixth game proved costly as, along with a 4-3 defeat at New Hanover later in the season, denied Fike a share of the Eastern 4-A Conference title. The Wildcats, whose only loss was a 5-4 outcome at Fike at the end of March, took the top seed from the league into the playoffs.

Along the way the Fike swept the season series from defending state 4-A champion and archrival Rocky Mount, including a 10-0 whipping of the Blackbirds, and demolished its other rival, Goldsboro, 18-8.

The first-round playoff opponent was Winston-Salem Reynolds, which had beaten Fike in the football season opener in 1966 and 1967.

“We knew we were going to play Winston-Salem Reynolds and all we talked about was revenge, but not for baseball — for football,” Daniell said.

The Cyclones got it by scoring nine runs in the first three innings of a 15-2 rout at Ernie Shore Field in Winston-Salem.

“So that set us up to go to Greensboro Grimsley and it took a no-hitter to win,” Ferrell said.

Johnston provided all the momentum necessary in the second round with his no-no at Grimsley, setting the stage for the championship series.

THE FINAL GAME

After Wooten’s gem in game 2, rain intervened for the second time in the series that, along with the day off Sunday, gave Ferrell an extra day to rest Johnston. It was all he needed. The left-hander held High Point Central to just one hit but the Black Bisons still managed to squeeze out two runs, including an unearned run in the top of the seventh inning to tie the score at 2-2. Fike, which was the home team in the game, didn’t let it go into extra innings.

Wooten led off the bottom of the seventh with an infield single. Ferrell pinch-ran Harold Davis, who stole second base on the first pitch from Central ace Davis Beaston. Dildy then dribbled a grounder that was kicked by the Black Bisons third baseman that no one chased down and Davis didn’t slow down as he rounded third and headed home with the championship run.

The Cyclones were state champs — again.

“I don’t remember that last inning,” Daniell said. “I just remember the feeling after the game. The Wilson crowd would follow us even in baseball and we had a lot of folks there.”

The memories may be fleeting for the 1968 Fike Cyclones but the relationships are what have lasted.

“Just as a coach that’s one of the things that becomes very special, if and when they grow older they make contact with you and to share a memory or two,” Ferrell said. “Actually, a lot of them I’ve become friends with. ... It’s things like that that mean a lot.”

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