Baseball fans know that behind every great pitcher is a great catcher, and that’s indeed the case at West Wilkes High School with Riley Ledford and Braxton Church.
Ledford, a southpaw hurler, and Church, his longtime backstop, recently made decisions to continue their hardball careers at Queens and Appalachian State universities, respectively.
Their coach, Drew Ward, tells me their chemistry extends beyond the baseball diamond—they’re best friends who have been playing together since the age of 7. In fact, you might think they’re brothers if you didn’t know any better.
“There is a friendly rivalry of sorts there that develops between brothers, and that is exactly what they have become on and off the field,” said Ward. “Riley is Braxton’s biggest fan, and Braxton is Riley’s biggest fan, even though they get after other at times.”
Ledford has been West’s ace since the day he first took the mound as a freshman in 2018, delivering the ball to Church behind the plate. Since then, he’s been nearly unbeatable, compiling an 18-1 record, with the only loss coming in the 2019 state playoffs. He’s the back-to-back pitcher of the year in the Mountain Valley 1A/2A Athletic Conference.
Ward said that Ledford is “the epitome of a bulldog on the mound, never backing down from an opponent and always competing in the zone.”
Not only has Church called the right pitches, he’s made noise with his bat. The two-time all-leaguer hit .432 in 2019 and drove in 28 runs, enabling him to join Ledford on the roster of the Region 7 State Games.
“Braxton is a tremendous competitor and one of the hardest workers that I have ever known,” said Ward. “He is a great teammate, loves the game and has been a true Blackhawk.”
Ward said it has been a pleasure watching a couple of young freshmen thrown into major varsity roles mature into men with great futures ahead of them.
The fact they were both major college recruits was mutually beneficial, too. “The more (scout) eyes that saw Riley, the more they saw Braxton, and the other way around, too.”
Ward explained that the coolest thing for him as their coach is to see their day-to-day interactions. “They hold each other accountable and push each other to be the very best they can be, and that has spilled over into our entire team.”
After the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, Ward said he is looking forward to great seasons from his celebrated battery in 2021. “They have tremendous expectations for themselves and for our team and I know they will do everything in their power to make our ultimate goal a reality this year.”
Ward added, “We still have some unfinished business next spring at The Creek.” And, no doubt, Ledford and Church will have big says in whether or not the Blackhawks take care of business.
At Queens and App State, Ledford and Church will have the chance to play a lot more baseball and extend their careers a long way, Ward thinks.
“My hope and prayer for them is that they remain healthy, keep that competitive fire lit and burning, and when things get tough, they remember their time together and know that they always have at least one baseball brother out there pulling for them.”
Just for fun, I asked Ward what he thought would happen if the heavens aligned and App State’s Church stepped up to the plate to face Ledford.
“Both would be locked in, first and foremost for the success of their respective teams, but also because of their history. I’m not sure whether I would expect a smile on either of their faces, or just a nod of recognition between two brothers. Then the battle would be on.”
Ward said he couldn’t wager to guess who would get the better of the other, “but I see it being the best pitcher-hitter confrontation on that day. Riley would know Braxton’s strengths at the plate, and Braxton would know Riley’s strengths on the mound.”
No matter the outcome, Riley and Braxton would still be best friends and baseball blood brothers.