By Brad Fauber
WOODSTOCK -- To say that Joe Gillette is well versed in the game of baseball might be an understatement.
Gillette, a junior at Massanutten Military Academy, first picked up a baseball bat when he was just 3 years old, and the Lexington, Ky., native quickly became obsessed with the sport. Gillette graduated from backyard baseball to tee-ball at the age of 6, and from there he went on to play in the Babe Ruth League and on AAU clubs before playing his first year of high school baseball at MMA last year.
Despite the fact that Gillette was only a sophomore on last year's team, he quickly realized that his vast baseball knowledge made him a natural leader on a team that lacked significant baseball experience.
"Coming in here last year, there were zero seniors on the team and only two or three juniors, and I've played baseball all my life, so I know the game really well," Gillette said. "I took the [leadership] position and kind of kept it."
Gillette's leadership on the diamond was pivotal for the Colonels last season, as his performance at the plate and on the pitcher's mound helped MMA to its first winning season in recent history.
Gillette's numbers on the mound were outstanding -- an 8-2 record, 2.92 earned run average, 82 strikeouts and 19 walks in 48 innings pitched. His line at the plate was equally impressive, as Gillette led the area with a .524 batting average while slugging .857. He also had 11 doubles, 18 RBIs and 18 runs scored.
For all of his work last season, Gillette was awarded a spot on the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association second-team all-state squad.
Gillette credits the baseball lessons learned from his father, as well as the hitting and pitching coaches he has worked with over the years, for helping him develop his skills to the point where he could reach those numbers.
"I listen," Gillette said. "I listen and I pick up on things that they say, and I'm like, 'OK, why not use it and see how it works?' And usually it works."
Gillette is also aggressive in his approach, whether it be on the mound or in the batter's box, and Colonels coach Merle Henkel said it's Gillette's willingness to attack the first-pitch fastball that allows the junior to be such an effective hitter.
That aggressiveness also translates well on the mound for Gillette, who said his repertoire consists of a low-80s fastball, curveball and circle changeup.
"I'll go right at somebody," Gillette said. "I'm trying to get you out, whether it's a strikeout, a groundout, pop fly. I'm trying to win."
Henkel said Gillette's ability to get hitters out was very important last season, given MMA's general lack of baseball experience behind him in the field.
"He could get strikeouts when we needed them," Henkel, who is in his second season as head coach of the program, said. "Some of our inexperience from time to time ... kids were not just physically not making plays, but kids who haven't been playing for a few years were not making the right heads-up play, and Joe was pretty unflappable. He just kept pitching away and could get a strikeout when he needed it to get us out of a jam."
The Colonels will require much of the same from Gillette on the mound this season, as MMA returns just five players from last year's 9-8 team.
Henkel said the Colonels have a strong core of returning players in addition to Gillette, including seniors Zach Hutmier, James Batzer and Chase McDevitt, but the seven newcomers will present some question marks for MMA, at least for the first few weeks of the season.
Henkel has made an upgrade to his coaching staff by adding Karter Rivera, a former collegiate pitcher at Virginia Military Institute. Gillette also figures to serve as an unofficial assistant coach from time to time, which is a role that he undertook last year as well.
"I'm the leader in the corps of cadets here -- I've just always kind of picked up that role," Gillette said of his leadership. "If coach [Henkel] is busy doing one thing and I'm over here and I see something being done wrong, I'll go over and just be like, 'You've got to drop your legs a little bit more', or, 'You've got to get your glove down farther.' Just little minor things."
Gillette said he is eager to attempt to replicate last season's numbers and hopefully earn a first-team all-state spot, but Gillette said his main goal is just to simply improve himself and his teammates.
Henkel also hopes the Colonels can continue to improve upon what the team achieved last season, although it make take a few games for the Colonels to begin to gel as a team.
"Because of our depth, I'd be very happy a winning season," Henkel said. "Naturally we'd like to win our rivalry games against R-MA and Fishburne. But again, the goal always is -- as it was last year -- to see everybody improve, see us come together as a team."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com