When the season started, the odds-on favorite for player of the year in West Virginia had to be Hurricane’s Aaron Perry.
The senior pitcher-infielder with the 95 mph fastball had already signed with Kentucky and was a possible pro draft pick.
Well, the season ended abruptly for Perry, who suffered a stress fracture in his pitching elbow in mid-April and was lost for the year.
As it turns out, though, Hurricane still had a player of the year candidate on its pitching staff. The Redskins just didn’t know it at the time.
Garrett Gress, a senior pitcher-infielder and good friend of Perry, developed into the staff ace for Hurricane, overcoming a few injury obstacles of his own in the process, and put up such dominant numbers that he has been selected as recipient of the John Lowery Award as the state’s prep baseball player of the year by a panel representing the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.
Also considered for the award were Washington catcher Cameron Pine, Cabell Midland infielder Kirk Jennings and Bridgeport catcher Drew Hefner.
Gress was solid as a rock for the Redskins, recording an 11-0 record and one save in 16 appearances, winning four postseason games — two in the sectionals, one in the regionals and one at the state tournament.
In 72 1/3 innings, he struck out 80 and walked just 10, allowed 42 hits and carved out a stingy ERA of 0.77. With his unique crossfire delivery, Gress helped Hurricane go 30-8 and reach the state tournament for just the third time since 2002.
Although Gress came into the season as an everyday player, one of the team’s top hitters and one of just three senior starters, his minor ailments and Perry’s unexpected absence eventually forced coach Brian Sutphin and his staff to limit Gress’ participation in the field and at the plate. Over the final seven weeks of the season, Gress got just 25 at-bats, but it never affected his work on the mound.
“It’s tough to win an award like that when you’re not putting up prolific offensive numbers,” Sutphin said. “But I think it speaks volumes to how much he dominated as a pitcher, and it was not domination in a typical way — not the typical way a high school pitcher does.”
Gress’ efficient approach was on full display in the Class AAA state tournament semifinals last week as Hurricane blanked Morgantown 10-0 in five innings. He needed just 55 pitches to work all five innings, allowing one hit and one walk to go with one strikeout.
“He’s ahead of every batter,” Sutphin said. “You’ve got a choice: swing at the first pitch, or go down 0-1. The thing that separates Garrett is his focus. He has the ability to focus on every pitch and not allow whatever’s going on around him to bother his pitch.
“He’s a special player because he finds a way to win 1-0 or 5-4. He’s going to win one way or another.”
In replacing the fireballing Perry at the top of the Hurricane rotation, Gress sometimes finds it humorous to succeed at his more-pedestrian pace.
“Maybe on a good day, I can pop one in there 84 or 85 [mph],” Gress said with a grin. “Someone told me at Power Park, I was 77 or 78 most of the day, which sounds about the right place.
“I think what I’ve based my success around is, first of all, throwing strikes. If you’re around the strike zone and force hitters to swing at your pitch, I think that’s where I get a lot of guys. Second is the movement on every pitch I throw — no matter if it’s a two-seam fastball, all of them. Throwing from sidearm, I get movement on everything, and that’s more of a key for me. I don’t have to overpower everybody. When you keep them off balance, they’re not sitting on certain locations.”
It’s not that Gress was a one-trick pony on the mound this year. He was second to Perry on the team in hitting last year at .351 and started out the season 13 of 30 before the spring-break trip and Perry’s injury drastically changed the outlook for the Redskins.
Gress became too valuable to the team to risk batting leadoff and playing shortstop every day when he wasn’t pitching. Plus, he missed two games with mononucleosis to begin the season, pulled a muscle in his left (non-throwing) arm at midseason and sprained an ankle running the bases just before sectionals, causing him to miss a handful of games.
“He was looking pretty good at the start of the season,” Sutphin said. “He’d gained weight and was about 180 pounds. Then he got mono and came back about 165 and looked weak. We were just trying to get his strength back and get to the middle of April where he could play all the time. We didn’t want to overuse him, his arm and in the field. And then he starts really swinging the bat. The kid’s playing great, and you’ve got to play him.
“Then we go to the beach and Perry goes down and [Gress] pitches a great game against Musselman. We [coaches] said to each other: ‘Hey, look, we’ve got one shot with this guy. Without him, we probably don’t have any shot. We’re not going to be able to stop guys.’ So from then on, kind of for the team, we monitored everything he did.”
Gress wound up hitting .273, but did draw 16 walks, struck out only nine times and drove in 13 runs. The lack of everyday use never hampered his fielding, as he handled 69 chances without an error this season, participating in four double plays.
For a second straight season, he also served as one of the team’s captains, helping guide a lineup that for much of the season featured only one senior starter — outfielder Evan Dearing — as the Redskins reached the state finals before losing to St. Albans 8-2.
“He’s such an unselfish player,” Sutphin said of Gress. “He’s most deserving of anything he gets. What a way to end his senior year.”
Gress has enrolled at Marshall, but has yet to decide if he’ll walk on to the baseball program.
“It’s still up in the air right now,” Gress said, “but I’m definitely going there for school.”
Gress becomes the fourth Hurricane athlete to win the state player of the year award in baseball, joining Arik Sikula (2007), Alex Wilson (2005) and Daniel Carte (2002).