During his 10-year tenure as head coach of the Hoke County Bucks’ varsity baseball team (12 years in all), Joe Critcher could always count on being tested by the conference-rival Fighting Scots.
Having played a portion of his collegiate baseball career at St. Andrews University in the early 80’s, Critcher had gotten a first-hand glimpse of the baseball and softball culture lying at the heart of Scotland County. And though his 1990 Bucks’ squad finished the season with a 27-3 record en route to a 4A state championship, Critcher never witnessed an off-year for the Scotland teams he competed against on a yearly basis.
“I always knew they were going to be good year in and year out,” said Critcher, who is currently the principal of the Scotland County Early College High School (or SEarCH) that is located on the St. Andrews campus. The School offers a five-year program that allows students to obtain both a high school diploma and associate’s degree from Richmond Community College upon successful completion.
“The reason being is because the Scotland community always started working with baseball and softball players at a young age. If you go through all of years that the Scots have had, you’d be hard-pressed to find many losing seasons,” he said.
Between Dixie Youth, Legion, Optimist and travel organizations, the opportunities for local youth looking to pursue a career on the baseball diamond are as prolific as they are plentiful. And throughout his 30+ years in the teaching and coaching realms, Critcher has enjoyed a stint with nearly all of them as his current career took shape.
But as the end of 2012 draws near, Critcher currently has set his baseball coaching career aside to fulfill his administrative duties with the SEarCH program, which saw its’ first graduating class just last year.
Yet, Critcher’s involvement with baseball and softball hasn’t ceased completely. In fact, the role that Critcher currently plays in the roles of prospective Scotland County baseball and softball players is that of a mentor, one who utilizes his lifelong knowledge of the game to help polish the skills of the more than 25 players he meets with regularly.
And as several of those players (along with past players that he has coached) earn the right to take their talents to the collegiate level and beyond, Critcher is humbled by the opportunities that baseball and softball have granted him.
“It’s a thrill to work with a kid 30 minutes to an hour each week, then see them the next week and know that they’ve been practicing what you taught them,” Critcher said. “You can see the fire in their eyes, and to watch them earn a chance to play college ball is great because it will be the best time of their lives. If they are willing to work at it, then I’m more than willing to do whatever I can to help them fulfill their dreams.”
A Boone, N.C. native, Critcher began his college baseball career at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville before he garnered the attention of Dr. Julian Smith, who was the St. Andrews baseball coach at the time. Critcher’s stint with the Knights (which spanned from 1982-83) was his first exposure to Scotland County, which he has called home for years.
After accepting a position at Lewis Chapel Junior High School out of Fayetteville upon graduating from St. Andrews, Critcher would shortly thereafter be called upon to become the head coach of the Hoke County varsity baseball squad, a position he would hold from 1988-98. The 1990 championship team that Critcher helmed saw four different players get selected in the Major League Baseball draft, including John Roper and Derek Graham.
From there, Critcher made his return back to St. Andrews where he was to be the head baseball coach of his former Alma mater from 1999-2002. In his second season with the team, Critcher led the Knights to a Carolinas Virgina Athletic Conference (CVAC) championship which included a win over Mount Olive College (the number two-ranked team in the United States at the time) in the season-ending tournament. The tournament-championship victory was the only one that St. Andrews earned during its time in the CVAC.
Critcher spent most of the 2000’s alternating between coaching Scotland ninth-grade baseball and Legion summer league teams, and has compiled more than 300 wins in his coaching career. Many of the players that Critcher coached in both ninth grade and Legion ball were a part of the 2006 4A state-champion Fighting Scots helmed by former 20-year coach Tommy Britt.
However, an opportunity offered to him by former Optimist Club president and softball league founder Phillip Hayes (who passed away in 2010) some seven years ago proved equal parts fateful and life-changing.
“Phillip was a very strong Optimist person, and he came to me and asked if I’d be interested in hosting lessons for kids because there was such a huge demand for it,” said Critcher, whose youngest daughter Allison came through the Optimist softball program. “He believed I had the knowledge to help these kids improve, and for me it was a win-win because it was a way for me to stay around the game.”
The clinics that Critcher specializes in push proper batting mechanics, which prove universally beneficial in both baseball and softball. Critcher urges his players to keep their hands close to their body, emphasize hip rotation, hit “through” the ball and not to it, and approach the plate with the aim of hitting a hard-struck double every time.
Critcher’s first-ever client was current Marlboro Academy Lady Dragons’ shortstop and pitcher Katie McLaurin, who still works with him on a regular basis. And the list of players has grown to include McLaurin’s teammate Megan Quick and current Scots’ first-baseman and pitcher Will Adams, among others. And if one were to include past players that Critcher has instructed, the list of names (many of whom have obtained collegiate success and professional careers) would be seemingly endless.
McLaurin, Quick and Adams have all recently received athletic scholarships to continue their playing careers beyond high school.
“I always preach to my players that it’s just a game, but that they can learn a lot from it and apply it to their lives,” Critcher said. “Just like in life, you can have one bad inning and bounce back to have two good innings. It’s all about how you grow and learn from it, and while I miss coaching I still get that feel every time I meet with a player.”
Critcher considers the dedication to his batting clinics a necessary sacrifice, one which he thanks his family for supporting him through the time commitment.
And as Scotland County’s baseball and softball backbone continues to extend its reach to places never before thought possible, Critcher hopes that his influence will continue to help guide the youth who come to him for guidance.
“You have people here in the County that remember as far back as the 1940’s when it comes to their baseball history,” Critcher said. “The beautiful thing about the sport here is that, regardless of where you’re from, every child is given the same opportunity to play. It crosses both racial and socio-economic lines, all for the sake of reaching young people. I want to keep that tradition going and maybe add my own stamp to it if I’m fortunate enough to do so.”