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17ers looking to build on state tournament run

Heightened expectations greet Pike and company

Posted: May 25, 2017 8:57 a.m.
Updated: May 26, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Special to the C-I/

BRADWIN SALMOND, SHOWN HERE driving a ball in last year’s state tournament at Riley Park, returns for his fourth season as a member of the Kershaw County Post 17 American Legion Senior team.

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There was a time, quite recently in fact, in when good summer for the Kershaw County American Legion baseball program was being competitive with League III kingpin Sumter, making a good showing in state playoffs and then, call it a day and a season.

Tyler Pike is hoping those days are long gone.

Last season, his first as the head coach of Post 17, Pike saw his team get off the canvas twice by winning a pair of play-in games inthe same night in Florence which punched the locals’ second ticket to the state tournament in three years. Once there, the 17ers hung around until the last day and the final pitch before losing to Florence, 9-8, in the championship round pairing.

The state tourney run, played over the course of five days in late July in the sweat box which was Sumter’s Riley Park, capped a 16-10 season for the locals. It also brought a healthy dose of people asking Pike and assistant coaches Stephen Carmon and Jack LaFrage what the second-year staff would do for an encore.

As evidenced by KC’s making the state tournament just twice in the last 40-plus years, a return trip to Riley Park is hardly a given for the program.

The 17ers took a heavy hit by players who aged-out of Legion ball. Gone are 2016 state tourney most valuable player Josh Hernandez along with Will Abbott, who The Citadel would let loose in order to pitch in the state tournament. The righty then came up with, arguably, the best mound performance of the event. Also playing their final games last summer were the versatile Brock Robinson and Ross Hough, who both saw time in the field while also toeing the pitching rubber when needed to help a beleaguered staff which received impressive showings in Sumter from former players, Brandon Dow and T.J. White. 

Throw in that starting first baseman William Cobb is sitting on the summer to prepare for his first season of college football at Limestone and there will be good deal of  upheaval on the 17ers’ roster.

Just minutes after the loss to Florence in last year’s finals, a sweat-soaked Pike was asked to look ahead to his second season at the helm. At the time, he said it was too early to predict another state tourney appearance before adding that it would not be out of the question if more in-county players decided to make their way to tryouts.

Pike’s call was answered last week when 22 players showed up for the two nights of senior American Legion tryouts. An additional 25 to 30 more came out for the junior squad. The present and future of the program has never looked so promising.

“I think the kids from last year’s team had a good time and they’re talking,” Pike said of the heavy turnout for tryouts. “They let a lot of other kids know that they had a good summer and that we made a good run. Kids want to be a part of that.”

Pike and his staff made it a point to go out and get the best players from Kershaw County and they were successful in filling needs. Nine players from Lugoff-Elgin --- an increase from three from a year ago, two from North Central --- a bump of one --- and seven present or past players from Camden High make up the 18-man roster. Save for a player or two who decided to go in another direction to play their summer baseball, Pike got the players he wanted and needed.

“We were really trying to reach out and get the best players in the county. I think we’re, pretty much, got that here,” he said. “We’re trying to get the best kids in the area to come out and play for us.”

The local entry returns four everyday starters from a year ago in outfielder Nick Butler, shortstop/pitcher Bradwin Salmond, pitcher/infielder Devin Beckley and catcher/outfielder Christian Flick. They will be the building blocks for a team bent on returning to the state tourney.

“We still have something to shoot for. That’s a goal for us every year; the state tournament,” Pike said. “Regardless of what we did the year before, that’s always our goal, that’s where we’ve set the bar.”

Pike said having players who have been there for an extended season such as last year can lead the way for newcomers who would like to have that same type of experience.

“I think it’s more to our advantage because it’s something that we did last year and we have a lot of guys coming back from that team who are going to have that shot again to get on board and, hopefully, go at it again and have another run,” he said.

“I think it’s fun. Hopefully, we can start a little tradition here where it will filter down to the next ones; the younger kids who are on our team now. Maybe by the time they’re seniors, they can get that taste and that experience to make another run.”

Having to win twice in one night to get to the state tournament and then, being the final team out, Post 17 became the state tournament darlings in knocking off league champions and even beating defending American Legion World Series champion Chapin-Newberry --- which two weeks earlier swept KC in the second round of the state playoffs --- along the way in Sumter.

As he recalled that improbable run, Pike broke into a smile.

 “It was pretty cool,” he admitted. “I know enough not to take anything like that for granted. Stuff like that doesn’t always happen. The kids we had last year were a special group. They were really really good ballplayers. The run we made was pretty neat and not something that always happens.

“I’m excited for this year, though. I’m excited about this group of guys that we have and to see where we’re headed.”

Pitching

Beckley was the bell cow of the 17ers’ rotation last season and it looks as if The Citadel signee will remain in that role again. A third-year KC player, Beckley is coming off a senior season at Camden High in which he earned AAA All-State honors and was named to play for the South Carolina North Select All-Star Team

The 6-foot-3 right-hander had a 5-2 record for the Bulldogs this past spring while pitching to a 1.27 earned run average. In 55 innings of work, he fanned a county-best 72 hitters.

From the deep L-E pitching staff come righties Josh Boone, John Bradley (1-2, 1.50 ERA), Jay Lynch (4-0, .993 ERA), Bryce Padgett, Salmond (1-1, with one save and a. 000 ERA) and lefty Justin Dorton (2-1, 4.40 ERA). Camden pitchers include right-handers Gus Allen (2-0, 3.93 ERA) and Mikael Nelson (0-2, 3.61 ERA) while Chase Stephens (4-3, 6.53 ERA), a righty from NC, is another arm in what looks to be a deep mound corps which is needed with nine-inning games.

Lynch, Dorton and Stephens were regular rotation guys while Salmond, in his fourth season of Legion ball has been used as a closer. Allen, Bradley Nelson were reliable spot starters while Padgett, whose primary position is catcher, has impressed with his bullpen work in practice.

From that group, Pike must come up with a three-man staff for a 12-contest League III season in which all four series are played inside a three-game week.

“Obviously,” Pike said, “we have to go to a three-man rotation. It’s going to be a work in progress through the year. I’m going to be working guys in and out.

“Jay Lynch, Justin Dorton, Chase Stephens and John Bradley have all looked really good. We have a lot of different options for starters. I’m looking at a group of five, maybe six, who will be battling it out for a spot in the rotation. Then, with the rest, they can be guys who on any given day, can come in and give us relief help and close games out or bridge gaps between the starters and the closer.”

For the first time, American Legion pitchers will be subject to a pitch count. In the senior program, pitchers will not be able to exceed 120 pitches in any single day. Should pitchers hit the limit in the middle of an at-bat, they may finish pitching to that batter before being removed from the position.

Pitchers will not be able to make more than two appearances in any three-day span. In addition, pitchers will have required rest based on the number of pitches thrown in a given day: Throwing 1-45 pitches in game action requires one day of rest, 46-60 pitches requires two days of rest, 61-75 pitches requires three days of rest and 76 or more pitches will require four days of rest.

Catching

Nearly as deep as the pitching staff are the number of players with experience at catcher at Pike’s disposal. No less than six members of the roster can catch. That is a relief for the 17ers who, last season, played mix-and-match behind the plate with Butler and Abbott being pressed into duty when Flick sustained an injury.

“We have a lot of catchers, which is a blessing,” Pike said. “Last year, we really had one and when Christian (Flick) got hurt, we didn’t have anybody after that. We had to patch it together.”

Flick returns for his third go ‘round as a 17er after having redshirted at Erskine College this past season. The Flying Fleet are making Flick an outfielder but he can also catch this summer

The starting backstops from all three county schools are on board including L-E’s Chase Galloway, a Florence-Darlington Tech signee who hit .238 with two doubles, a triple, a home run while driving in 11 runs for the 20-8 Demons. Maybe no player in the county made as much of an improvement from the start to the end of the season as did CHS sophomore catch Brady White who finished with a .281 average. The reliable Stephens, who played for the 17ers in 2015, comes off a senior season in which he batted .300 with a pair of doubles, triple and a home run while driving in 10 runs and scoring 16.

Padgett was impressive in a backup role for L-E and has a strong arm to go with solid receiving skills.

With that group, it should allow Butler to stay in the outfield and hang up the catching gear for good.

Infield

Depth is evident in the field positions. A pair of L-E products --- Josh Ayer (.218 with two doubles and nine RBI) and Dorton (.370 with five RBI) --- have experience at first base. In a pinch, Pike can go with White, Beckley (.292 with six RBI), White and Flick there, as well.

After missing most of the second half of the regular season and all the postseason with a knee injury, second baseman Cam Holley is back at 100 percent. He batted a team-best .438 at North Central this past season with three doubles, a triple and a pair of home runs while driving in 10. The versatile Noah Rabon, who can also play shortstop and third base, is coming off a junior year at L-e in which he led the Demons with a .460 batting average. He drove in a dozen runs and had five doubles and a triple.

On the left side of the infield, Salmond returns to the 17ers at shortstop with Rabon and Beckley also figuring in the mix, if the need arises. Salmond batted .382 for the Demons with a team-high 34 hits while driving in 16 runs. There are a number of options at third base including Stephens (.300 with 10 RBI at NC), Galloway, Bradley, Beckley and Rabon.

Outfield

When not forced to catch last summer, Butler was the 17ers’ starting rightfielder. He is coming off a senior season at CHS in which he led the Bulldogs with a .320 average and with 24 hits including six doubles, a triple and a home run while driving in 13 from his post in center field.

Tyler Maxwell had a breakout sophomore campaign for CHS as he batted .304 with a team-best 19 RBI. Boone, who played for KC during an injury-riddled summer a year ago, brings speed to the table and hit .333 while scoring 11 runs for L-E in 2017. The versatile Flick will play in the outfield as he makes the adjustment from catcher while another catcher, Padgett, could be used in the outfield, as well.

“We have guys who can play multiple positions and can do multiple things on this team; pitching, playing the field and starting or relieving on the mound,” Pike said. “We have a lot of guys who are Swiss Army Knife-types, which is good. It makes for tough decisions for me to make but that’s a good thing.”

Season Outlook

The 17ers open their season tonight at home against Aiken in the first game of a weekend preseason tournament which continues with two games Saturday and another on Sunday in Florence. All the contests will be seven-inning affairs which Pike and his staff will use to continue the evaluation process while also trying to find the right chemistry.

“This pre-season tournament is the time to do it,” he said of experimenting with his team’s mix of players and where to put them. “It wasn’t until about halfway through the season last year when we kind of found a lineup that was working best for us. Then, we started rolling with that lineup all the way through the state tournament.

“It’s a timing thing. Some kids might start slower and finish stronger while some might start stronger and finish slower. We just have to find a balance between them.”

As for what this KC squad will hang its hat on, so to speak, Pike said it is still too early to tell. He does like the enthusiasm and the camaraderie which he has seen develop after only a few days of practice.

 “I don’t know, yet,” he said when asked the strength of this team. “You don’t know until you bring them into battle and see what they look like in game scenarios and see how they react. I think we have a lot of depth and a lot of flexibility. I think that is going to work in our favor.”

Post 17 will return to League III which returns Hartsville to replace Orangeburg in what should be a competitive five-team circuit. While KC finished runner-up in the state last July, people forget that Sumter won the League III crown.

In spite of the run which his team made last July, Pike said when push comes to shove, Sumter is still the team to beat. That will be the first obstacle for the 17ers and the rest of the league to have to overcome.

 “We still have a lot to prove, I think,” Pike said. “When you talk to people around the state, it’s still Sumter in this league and for good reason. Sumter’s really, really good. 

“We’ve got our hands full. We made a good run last year but I don’t think that cemented us in any fashion … we’ve still got a lot of work to do. With this group of guys we have, though, I think we can make a run.”

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