Kandrick rises from ‘new kid’ to Hawks’ most prolific bat

Skyline's Gavin Kandrick takes off his helmet as he finishes a round of batting practice on a recent afternoon. Kandrick will help lead the Hawks this baseball season. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – As Jay Barnes was approaching his second season as Skyline High School’s baseball coach in 2015, he’d been repeatedly asked by people in the building if he’d seen the new kid in one of the school’s physical education classes.

That “new kid” was Gavin Kandrick, a sophomore who had recently moved to Front Royal from Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and Barnes, piqued by the chatter he’d heard regarding one of Skyline’s newest students, met with Kandrick. It was during that conversation that Barnes discovered Kandrick played baseball.

From there Kandrick emerged as what Barnes called a “pleasant surprise.”

“One thing led to another, (he) came into tryouts and he had really good skills,” Barnes recalled of that preseason two years ago following practice last Friday. “(Kandrick) wasn’t the strongest kid on the team but he had good baseball skills, some good baseball savvy. He knew his way around the game.”

A couple weeks later, in the Hawks’ 2015 season opener against John Champe, Kandrick cemented himself in the starting lineup. He went 3-for-3 against the Knights, lining a trio of singles that drove in a total of three runs as Skyline rolled to a 12-1 victory.

Skyline's Gavin Kandrick waits for his turn of hitting during a recent practice. Kandrick will help lead the Hawks this baseball season. Rich Cooley/Daily

Two years later Kandrick, now a senior, still considers that debut one of his crowning moments as a Hawk.

“That was probably my highlight,” said Kandrick, who is entering his third season as a starter and second as Skyline’s No. 1 catcher. “Barnes gave me a great opportunity to come out and show myself and I did. I proved myself here.”

Kandrick’s first game with his new team was a sign of things to come. He went on to hit .364 (24-for-66) as a sophomore in 2015, a season in which he also drove in 10 RBIs, scored 18 runs and stole eight bases.

As a junior last spring Kandrick led Skyline in batting average (.444; 24-for-54), RBIs (16), runs scored (17) and stolen bases (23). He led all public school players in steals in 2016, ranked second in batting average and was also in the top 10 in doubles (five) and RBIs.

In each of his first two seasons with the Hawks Kandrick was voted first team All-Conference 28.

Kandrick, who hadn’t played at the varsity level prior to arriving at Skyline, said his success at the plate is a credit to his emphasis on improving his mental game.

“Ninety percent of this game is mental, 10 percent is physical,” Kandrick said. “You’ve just gotta keep your head straight. If you’re in a slump you’ve just gotta work hard and trust yourself.

“I don’t try to do too much, you know. I just work on my hands, my mental game like I said. But they really work me here, work me hard, so I get all my reps in practice and I just focus on my mental game and not try to do too much.”

Kandrick admitted that his psychological game in the batter’s box is still “shaky” at times, but Barnes said the senior has continued to grow in that aspect. Kandrick isn’t getting himself out as much, Barnes added, and he’s shown the ability to separate his at-bats, not allowing a poor plate appearance carry over into the next.

And as good as Kandrick’s bat has been, his defense has been just as valuable. A catcher his whole life, Kandrick found himself behind incumbent starter Hunter Partlowe in 2015 and made a new home in right field and as a versatile utility player for Skyline.

“He is a very natural baseball player and fortunately for him he has the athletic ability to be able to play all the positions,” Barnes said. “If I remember correctly as a sophomore he played every position except for first base, and he even had a win on the mound that year.”

Kandrick became the Hawks’ full-time catcher last season and will reprise that role this spring.

“He’s not your stereotypical catcher. He’s not big in stature but he’s very athletic. He’s very fast for a catcher and sometimes I don’t know if that gets him in trouble or it helps him,” Barnes said. “But his arm definitely helps. Anytime you’ve got somebody behind the plate that throws like he does, it definitely discourages running games. And then just athletically he’s a good blocker, he’s a good receiver, good catch-and-throw guy. He’s fairly polished.”

Kandrick, who said he’s evolved from the shy new kid to a more vocal leader in his final high school season, is one veteran within a group of six regular starters who return for the Hawks this season.

That group includes fellow seniors Matthew Hartzell (.365, one home run, six doubles, 11 RBIs in 2016), Skyline’s second leading hitter last season, Aaron Tasker and Brett Ritter (3.76 ERA, 30 strikeouts in 29.2 innings pitched in 2016).

Last spring the Hawks went 9-11 and reached the Conference 28 tournament semifinals.

“We’ve got a lot of arms back and we’ve got some experience back, which helps. And we’ve got some guys that are inexperienced but mature, so they’re picking it up quickly,” Barnes said. “I would say that at this point in the year this is one of the most athletic teams that I’ve had here, and definitely, on paper, could be the most successful.”

Kandrick agreed there is something a little different about this year’s Hawks.

“We’ve got our heads screwed on right this year, that’s for sure. Look at them working the cage over there, getting extra reps,” Kandrick said, pointing to a pair of teammates taking extra cuts in the batting cage as the familiar metallic ping echoed across Skyline’s practice field. “That’s something we need to work on. And just our attitude is a big thing this year, and I think we have that. We do.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com