×

Nighthawks’ Wilhite Back to Previous Heights

  • Georgia Tech junior Austin Wilhite, right, and a Nighthawks teammate prepare to bat against the Vermont Mountaineers in White River Junction, Vt., on July 15, 2018. Over Georgia Tech's 2018 season, Wilhite played in and started all 58 games at shortstop for the team. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nighthawks shortstop Austin Wilhite, right, speaks with Mountaineers first baseman Ronald Medina after reaching on a single in the first inning of their first game of the night in White River Junction, Vt., on July 15, 2018. Wilhite, of Buford, Ga., is a junior at Georgia Tech and Medina, of Bronx, N.Y., is a senior at Keystone College. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley's Austin Wilhite stands up from sliding into third after running from first base on a teammate's deep single in the first inning of their game with Vermont in White River Junction, Vt., on July 15, 2018. After 11 games, Whilhite is hitting for a .385 average. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2018

Veteran’s Park in Chatham, Mass., the home field of the Cape Cod League’s Chatham Anglers, is tucked away downtown between the Chatham Railroad Museum and the Monomoy Theater. It also features a white house on a hill in center field that, when standing in the batters box, provides a deceptive backdrop for hitters who can’t tell the difference between the white siding and a 90-miles-per-hour fastball.

That white house gave Austin Wilhite fits during his time with the Anglers this summer. He batted .100 with two hits in 20 at-bats in 14 games this summer. His two hits both came in the same game — on the road against the Brewster Whitecaps.

Lucky for Wilhite, the outfield at the Maxfield Sports Complex is lined with trees. The change of scenery seems to have made a difference.

“It was directly behind center field, up on a hill behind the road,” Wilhite said of Chatham’s odd backdrop after Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Sanford Mainers at Goodall Park. “When the pitcher’s arm came over the mound, the ball released right in the middle of the house. At a certain time of day, you don’t see the ball until it’s halfway to the plate.

“Even my coaches (at Chatham) noticed it, too,” he added. “For me, I wasn’t hitting that well. Then add (the white house) on top of it, it was all in my mind.”

Wilhite, the Georgia Tech athlete entering his junior season with the Ramblin’ Wreck, has found his game again with the Upper Valley Nighthawks. Since joining the team in early July, the Buford, Ga., native been one of the team’s best hitters, batting .346 with 18 hits, three doubles, two triples, nine RBIs and a home run in 52 at-bats over 14 games (entering Friday night). He’s also stabilized the team’s shortstop position, giving Nighthawks head coach Jason Szafarski some valuable flexibility.

“I’m glad I was able to come here; I’m glad they gave me an opportunity to come here and play,” Wilhite said. “It’s helped me a lot to get my swing back to what it should be.”

Wilhite started playing baseball when he was 4, and tried swimming and basketball before finding a sports home with baseball. He joined Georgia Tech in 2017 with his twin brother, Nick, an outfielder and left-handed pitcher. The two have had a brotherly competition, Wilhite said, since they were little.

“We always compete; when I get a hit, he wants to get a hit,” Wilhite said of his brother, who is batting .280 with the Norcross (Ga.) Astros in the Sun Belt League this summer. “He’s always there to help me out.”

At college, Wilhite’s career took off. He played 55 games as a true freshman for the Yellowjackets in 2017, with a .338 batting average that ranked 15th-best in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He was third on the team with 67 hits, third with 14 doubles and recorded a home run, a triple, 25 RBIs and 36 runs. He was named a freshman All-American by both the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and by the amateur baseball publication Collegiate Baseball.

Wilhite batted .249 as a sophomore last spring, playing 58 games at shortstop. His production came to a halt in the Cape. He was released from Chatham on July 2 after going seven straight games without a hit.

“(My confidence is) way back,” Wilhite said. “I wasn’t as confident at the Cape. Not getting many chances but I wasn’t hitting well, so I can’t expect to be in there. Having a chance in the lineup, getting in there and hitting balls hard, that’s all I can do. I feel a lot better now.”

That newfound confidence has impressed Szafarski, who said he knew Wilhite was a strong athlete after looking at his numbers at Georgia Tech.

“Offensively, defensively, he can run — he’s the whole package,” Szafarski said on Thursday. “He was at the Cape, obviously he kind of struggled there, but he was there for a reason.”

Wilhite’s consistency has reminded Szafarski of Troy shortstop Matt Sanders, who played for the Nighthawks last summer. Sanders, an 2017 NECBL All-Star who batted .271 in 46 games for Upper Valley, was picked in the 10th round draft of the MLB Draft by the Seattle Mariners in June. He has since been promoted to the Double-A Arkansas Travelers.

Szafarski believes Wilhite has the potential to be drafted even higher.

“Matt went in the 10th round last year,” Szafarski said. “To me, Austin is a better-looking player than Matt was.

“He’s arguably one of the better players in the league and one of the best shortstops in the league,” he added. “It’d be a shame if he doesn’t start in the (NECBL) All-Star Game, even though he’s only been here for a handful of games.”

Wilhite ran into some bad luck last week: hitting high fly balls to diving outfielders and being caught at second base trying to extend a single off the wall into a double against the Mainers on Thursday. He was still riding a three-game hit streak headed into Friday’s matchup with the North Adams SteepleCats, and he’s happy to be back on track.

“For me personally, after the season I had, just to get my swing back, to get on a good bat path and to hit balls hard on a line,” Wilhite said. “I’m not a home-run hitter, so I shouldn’t be hitting the ball in the air too much. … So far, I’ve been doing that and I’ve had some success. I know my swing is in a good place right now.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.