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Season of change

New coach, new rules greet new-look 17ers as American Legion campaign kicks off

Posted: May 21, 2018 3:27 p.m.
Updated: May 22, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

STEPHEN CARMON (left) talks to Noah Rabon during an at-bat in a Post 17 game from last season. Carmon, a former shortstop in the San Diego Padres’ system, makes the move from the 17ers’ assistant coach the past two year to the locals’ head coach this season.

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Nearly 30 players from six different high schools answered the call when the rain-abbreviated tryouts for the Kershaw County Post 17 Senior American Legion baseball team opened last Monday. It was a far cry from two years ago when the locals finished second in the state American Legion Tournament at Riley Park in Sumter with just 13 players in tow in absurdly hot, mid-day conditions.

A bump is numbers is hardly the only difference for the local entry. There is change at the top as former P-17 player and assistant coach, Stephen Carmon, has taken over the reins from Tyler Pike, who stepped down due to work obligations. 

Additionally, American Legion games will now be seven-inning affairs after having been nine inning games for years. The designated hitter will remain in effect albeit; he can bat for any player in the lineup as opposed to the old rule of the DH only being used to bat for the pitcher. The speed-up rule, in which courtesy runners can be used for pitchers and catchers, has also been implemented as American Legion baseball now resembles the high school game.

KC is also part of an expanded League III in which former League IV members Orangeburg and Lexington have joined holdovers Dalzell-Shaw, Hartsville, Manning-Santee and Post 17 in a seven-team circuit in which the top four teams in the league will advance to the state playoffs. And for the first time in memory, the eight-team state tournament has been scrapped in favor of a streamlined four-team event --- pitting the survivors of two rounds of best-of-five series --- which will be contested at Spirit Communications Park in Columbia, home of the Columbia Fireflies.

Carmon is a Camden native who played five seasons as a member of Post 17 and who went on to a record-setting career as a shortstop at USC-Aiken. Following his senior season with the Pacers in 2012, he was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 10th round of that year’s Major League Baseball Draft. He played three seasons in the Padres’ organization before a series of injuries forced him to retire.

As someone who was never afraid to leave the field with a dirty uniform, Carmon said that is what he expects to see from his 18-player squad. It will also be the way he manages his players.

“I believe in the same philosophy that I had when I was a player,” he said. “We’re going to be real aggressive. We’re going to bunt, we’re going to run and we’re going to take chances to get extra bags to try and score runs. That’s what I believe in offensively.

“Defensively, I believe in being sound, making the routine plays and cutting out the mental mistakes. And pitching, we have to throw strikes and make teams put the ball in play. If they’re going to beat us, they’re going to earn it. 

“That’s how we’re going to go out there and face our opponents. Hopefully, it’s going to work for us more times than not.”

American Legion rules limit each team to carrying just 18 players. On the 17ers’ roster are nine players who played at Lugoff-Elgin, five from Camden High, three from Spring Valley and one from Blythewood. Of that group, a dozen are in either college or, will be playing college baseball next season.

Being one of just two American Legion posts from the central Midlands region to field a team plus, given the program’s recent stretch of going deep into the playoffs with two trips to the state tournament in the past five campaigns, Post 17 has become a desirable landing spot for players from in and outside Kershaw County.

“The interest that we’ve had in the past couple years has been growing,” said Carmon who was KC’s assistant coach/third base coach the past two years. “That was one of our goals when we started; to get most of the kids from Camden, Lugoff-Elgin and North Central to come try out and get that excitement back into our program. We have done that and you could tell by the turnout that we had for our tryouts.”

Carmon said he and assistant coaches Ross Hough and Christian Flick --- both former P-17 players who played key roles for the 2016 state runners-up --- had a hard time deciding which 18 players to keep. He said the coaching staff cut “some really good players” who, a year or two earlier would have made the team. That, Carmon said, is a sign of the stability of the program.

“We felt like we kept the 18 best players who could help us win and get to the state championship,” he said. “We probably cut six or seven guys who, definitely, would have played for us last year or, the year before.”

When it came to trying to decide which 18 players to keep, Carmon said the emphasis was first put on making sure the 17ers had enough arms to get them through the season and, hopefully, into the state championship tourney in Columbia. It does not take a long memory to recall that in 2016, KC was all but out of rested arms in the final days of the state tournament. No less than 13 players on this year’s squad can toe the rubber. 

“We went in to tryouts saying that we needed 13 guys that we could  we could put on the mound and who we would feel comfortable about their being able to throw strikes and get people out,” Carmon said. “That thinking went into making some of our cuts; we cut some good players who didn’t pitch.

“That’s just the way Legion baseball works. You need a lot of pitching once you get to the playoffs. When we made that state tournament run (in 2016) we were good on the front end but playing that many games in so few days (playing 10 in 14 days with the last five bring in as many days) at the end, we were drained.”

Shortening the game to seven innings, Carmon said, should help level the playing field after program such as Florence and Chapin-Newberry loaded their rosters with pitchers who threw in college and were used to having a heavier work load. 

“I think it’s a huge help for teams that aren’t as deep with their roster, especially as far as pitching goes,” Carmon said. “Teams like Florence and Chapin-Newberry don’t have as big an advantage now because you don’t need so many arms to go nine innings day after day. It will definitely help us this year.”

The locals will host two-time defending state champion Florence on Wednesday in a 6 p.m. scrimmage at American Legion Park in Camden. Beginning Friday, they will play four games in three days in the Florence Post 1 Invitational Tournament before opening League III play in Hartsville next Tuesday night.

Carmon said he and his staff will have a better idea as to where their pitching staff stands following this weekend’s slate of contests. 

“We don’t have a set rotation, right now,” Carmon said. “We’ve only had one practice on the field with all this rain. We have guys in mind as who we want to be our starters and who we want to be our relievers. By the end of the preseason tournament, we should have a better idea about our starting rotation.”

Back from last year’s 16-6 squad, which advanced to the second round of the state playoffs, are cousins, Florence-Darlington Tech signees and soon-to-be L-E grads Justin Dorton and Jay Lynch. Dorton, a lefty, led the 17ers with a 6-0 record while posting a team-best 2.49 earned run average in 2017. Lynch, a hard-throwing righty, went 5-2 a year ago striking out a team-high 44 batters in a team-best 42.2 innings of work.

Newcomer Zac Branham, the recently named Region 6-4A player of the year, comes off a 6-2 season on the mound at L-E in which he fanned 67 batters in 54.1 innings of work while pitching to a 1.42 ERA. Graduating Demon right-hander and Kentucky Christian signee Hunter Coleman had a win and a save for L-E with the sidewinder fanning 18 batters in 22.2 innings.

Camden High has three of its top pitchers on the roster in Tate Abbott, Holden Bunch and Sam Ferguson. Abbott, a right-hander, won three games for the Bulldogs, throwing 51.1 innings while fanning 57 batters with a 3.00 ERA. Bunch, a 6-foot-5 lefty who was not cleared to pitch until the midway mark of the season, went 1-1 with a 1.91 ERA in 18.1 innings of work in which he fanned nine batters. Ferguson, a lefty, had two wins while working 42.1 innings. He fanned 36 batters while finishing with a 3.14 ERA.

Several other players have pitching experience but Carmon said he will look to everyday players Bradwin Salmond, a fifth-year P-17er, and newcomer Todd Mattox in closing roles. Salmond, who will graduate from L-E next week, fanned 33 in 27.2 innings of work with three wins and two saves for the Demons this past season. Mattox, a Blythewood High grad who was USC-Lancaster’s leading hitter and starting shortstop this season, is a sidearm-throwing righty a three-pitch arsenal including a quick-breaking slider.

In the field, KC has depth at every position starting at catcher with Chase Galloway and Brady White returning. Galloway, who was a freshman at Florence-Darlington Tech this season, led the 17ers in batting last summer with an eye-popping .526 average with 30 hits in 71 at-bats for the L-E graduate. White, a rising senior at Camden, saw action in 13 games last summer and is coming off a junior campaign in which he earned All-Region 4-AAA honors after batting .260 with 17 RBI.

There is a logjam at first base which includes L-E rising senior and 4A All-State selection Jake Laffin, who led the Demons with a .403 batting average with six doubles and 17 RBI. Spring Valley product Wynston Dyer is a longball threat who will supply a source of power. Dorton, who batted .403 for the 17ers last summer while driving in a team-best 22 runs can play first we well as the outfield to go along with his role as a pitcher. Bunch played first base for the Dogs in an abbreviated season while 2017 CHS graduate William Cobb, who was a member of the 2016 P-17 squad and is a redshirt freshman linebacker at Limestone College is returning to baseball and figures into the mix at first base.

Branham and Spring Valley grad and Spartanburg Methodist signee Chris Rivers will play second base with Branham coming off a senior year in which he batted .300 with eight stolen bases at L-E. Rivers can also move to shortstop when Mattox is on the mound.

USC-Lancaster signee Noah Rabon returns at third base after having hit at a .307 clip with 12 RBI and 23 runs scored. last summer Abbott can also play the position and hit .283 with three doubles and a triple for Camden.

Speed is the buzzword for an outfield which features returning starters Josh Boone, who batted .271 with 14 RBI, 14 runs scored and stealing seven bases in as many tries. Boone comes off a senior season at L-E in which he hit .357 with three doubles, two triples and knocked home 19 runes. Salmond returns at centerfield after scoring 24 runs and leading the 17ers with 13 stolen bases. In his final season at L-E, he batted .359 with a home run, three doubles, a triple, driving in 16 runs with 12 stolen bases.

Along with Boone, Coker signee and SV product Jaiden Garner gives KC a quick outfield with all three being timed at 6.8 seconds or faster in the 60-yard dash in an outfield mix which also includes  Lynch, Ferguson, Coleman and Dorton.

Carmon said having three outfielders who can get to the baseball quickly pays dividends in patrolling expansive outfields such as American Legion Park and Sumter’s Riley Park.

The League III slate has each team playing a home-and-home series. Sumter, under former KC head coach Curtis Johnson, is a returning state tourney team which defeated Lexington, a squad loaded with several college players and college signees, lost to Sumter in round two last summer. Hartsville, Manning-Santee and Orangeburg have always played KC tough while Dalzell-Shaw should be improved.

In looking at the schedule, Carmon said June 11-14 will give his team an idea as to where they stand. In that four-day stretch, the 17ers will play Lexington on consecutive nights followed by back-to-back pairing with Sumter.

“We have Lexington and Sumter four days in a row; that’s going to be a crucial week for us,” he said. “I think we’ll be OK, though. I know we have a lot of talent and, I knew that we have a lot of good baseball players who come from winning programs on our team. I think we’re going to be just fine.”


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