Hardly a day or, night passes by that Stephen Carmon has not played the one pitch over and over again in his mind.
Last summer, on a scorching late July afternoon, Carmon and the Kershaw County Post 17 American Legion baseball team were a strike away from earning a spot in the four-team state tournament. With the locals leading visiting Sumter and holding a 4-3 lead with two outs and two strikes on Post 15’s Rylan Williamson, the unthinkable happened.
A passed ball third strike allowed Williamson to get on first base to load the bases. Two base hits and three runs later, the 17ers walked off their home field for the final time of the season with a still hard-to-believe 6-4 loss to their bitter rival.
Earlier this spring, Sumter P-15s head coach Curtis Johnson said he still could not believe what happened that day while adding that KC was the best team his squad faced either in the state tournament or, in the Southeast Regional tourney. That compliment would probably be of little solace to Carmon who, in truth, is still a bit numb from that contest which was played a little less than 10 months ago.
“I still think about it. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it,” said Carmon, who led Post 17 to the League III crown and a 22-8 record in his first go ‘round as head coach. “That’s something that, in another 10 years, I will probably still think about it.”
On the other side of the coin, the eight players which the locals have returning to the squad for the 2019 season have an added incentive to make their way to state tournament at Segra Park in July.
“They’re more prepared now for adversity and dealing with a tough situation,” Carmon said. “Hopefully that will help us moving forward this year as we try to get back to the final four and playing for a state championship.”
Up until that fateful top of the seventh inning in what proved to be the season finale, the 17ers did almost everything right. They won what had been an elusive League III title while knocking off rival Sumter, along the way, with an 8-2 league record.
This summer, for the first time in recent memory, KC and Sumter have been relegated to different leagues. The two sides will play a non-league, home-and-home including a July 4th game at Riley Park. Along with Sumter, longtime P-17 rival Dalzell-Shaw will head to the Pee Dee/Grand Strand-centric League II. KC remains in League III with 2018 holdover Lexington while West Columbia and Aiken have been added to the four-team circuit in which the top three finishers will earn a state playoff berth with the top two teams in the league earning first round byes.
The 17ers swept Aiken in the first round of the state playoffs in 2016 while having faced Lexington seven times last year; the final five of those in a first round postseason series won by Carmon and company, 10-0. It has been more than four years since met West Columbia, which has led to Carmon and his staff of assistant coaches Ross Hough and Christian Flick to get as much information on League III teams as possible.
“We were in a tough league last year and this league is tough, as well,” Carmon said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
Before that, KC will open defense of the Florence Post 1 Invitational tournament title which it won a year ago by defeating host Florence, 11-7, in the championship game. That three-day event opens tonight at American Legion Park in Camden with Manning-Santee in town for a 7 p.m. start followed by the playing of three games in two days in Florence. The regular season opens next Tuesday in Aiken with the League III home opener with Aiken on deck for next Wednesday night.
Carmon said he likes to break the schedule down to several parts starting with trying to win this weekend’s tournament, then it is trying to win the first League III series followed winning the league title, win the first playoff series, win the second and then, on to the state tournament.
“Our end goal is to be the last team standing in South Carolina,” Carmon said. “That’s something that has ever been done here at Post 17. We’ve been close the last couple years. We just have to get over that hump. I think our program is set up to do it. Anything else, I don’t want to say is a failure, but that is our main goal we want to get to every year.”
Carmon was elevated to the head coaching position prior to the 2018 campaign after having been an assistant under Tyler Pike for two seasons. In 2016, the 17ers finished with a 16-10 record and played in the state championship finals. A year later, a 16-6 campaign ended with a second round playoff loss to Chapin-Newberry. In the three seasons he has been a coach for his hometown team, Carmon has been a part of a program that has fashioned a 54-24 record.
A former five-year P-17 player himself before being drafted by and playing in the San Diego Padres’ system, Carmon said this edition of the 17ers may be better built for a deep run into late summer than any which he has been a part of as a coach or, player.
“This team has more depth at every position than it has ever had since I’ve been part of Post 17,” he said. “Defensively, I think we will be a lot stronger. Pitching-wise, we may not be as top-heavy with our starters this year as we were last year, but we have some really good pitchers.
“As coaches, we were talking about this at practice, this team, baseball-wise, is really, really smart. We’re looking to make a run for a state championship, again.”
Earlier this week, Carmon received a commitment from John Lanier, who was the Region 4-5A as well as the 5A state player of the year at Blythewood while helping the Bengals to the 5A Lower State title. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Citadel signee is the latest piece to what the 17ers’ franchise hope will be a state championship puzzle.
As any American Legion coach, player or fan will tell you, when it comes to the summer game, it all comes down to pitching. Playing three and sometimes four times a week in the regular season is taxing enough, but when it gets to the second and third round of the playoffs --- both best-of-five series, finding rested arms becomes the key to surviving and advancing.
The addition of Lanier and teammate Tripp Reeves, son of the Lugoff-Elgin and Post 17 standout Jay Reeves, helps solidify a mound corps which had Carmon and pitching coach Ross Hough concerned as to not having enough available arms. If this group comes through as is hoped, watch out.
“We have a good pitching staff,” Carmon said. “Justin Dorton’s back, Sam Ferguson’s back and Bradwin Salmond’s back. We added Zack Reynolds, Heath Stokes, Jake Tanner, Tripp Reeves and John Lanier. I feel pretty good about our staff.
“I know Ross will do a good job with them. Once you get in the playoffs, you play five games in five days so you have to manage your pitching very well, especially if you go all five games like we did last year where we got in the position where we didn’t have any arms left and we had to put position players on the mound.”
Dorton, a 2018 L-E graduate has a 13-0 record for the 17ers the past two summers and is coming off a 7-0 year in which he pitched to a 1.56 earned run average. Ferguson saw limited time with the 17ers a season ago, but won four games in seven decisions with a 1.21 ERA as a junior at Camden High this past season. Zack Reynolds is coming off a sophomore year at L-E in which the right-hander went 3-3 with a 3.00 ERA. Lanier, a lefty, was 10-2 with an ERA of less than 1.00 at Blythewood. Those four would appear to get the majority of starts.
Stokes, who is also an outfielder, went 1-1 on the mound for L-E. Tanner, who was Camden’s starting shortstop, found a role out of the bullpen and made eight appearances in 2019, winning two with two saves and a 1.73 ERA. Salmond, who is playing in a P-17 record sixth season, will be the closer. Timed in the low 90s at Spartanburg Methodist this spring, the righty worked eight games for KC last year and was 4-for-4 in save opportunities and posted a 0.90 ERA.
Carmon has the unpleasant, but enviable task of trying to find playing time for 10 infielders with five available positions. “We are going to have some very deserving players of the bench, at times, this year,” Carmon said.
Lanier, who had nine home runs and 36 RBI at BHS, will be in the mix at first base along with holdovers Jake Laffin, an L-E senior and Florence-Darlington Tech, and Spring Valley grad and USC-Lancaster first baseman Wynston Dyer who has been crushing the ball in batting practice. Laffin batted .370 with two home runs and 17 RBI for the 17ers while Dyer received just 15 at-bats but made one of those count with a game-winning RBI against Lexington.
L-E junior Sawyer Reeves, who led the Demons with a .342 batting average this past season, is locked in a battle with SV grad and USC-Sumter infielder Da’Avion Sumpter at second base while sure-handed L-E senior and North Greenville signee J.C. LeGrand, who is coming off an All-Region 4-5A season, and Tanner, who led CHS with a .305 average, are the shortstops on the roster. Third base has 2018 L-E grad and USC-Lancaster infielder Noah Rabon back for his third season with the 17ers. In 2018, Rabon shrugged off a slow start to bat at a .289 clip with two doubles and 13 RBI. Switch-hitting L-E junior Mason Cassady is also in the mix at third after having held down that spot for the Demons in the spring.
Brady White, who split the catching duties last summer, returns after having hit .286 last summer. The USC-Sumter signee was an All-Region 4-AAA choice at Camden this past season. Dalton Reeves, who earned All-Region 4-5A laurels in 2019 at L-E, is playing Legion ball for the first time. The 6-foot-4 backstop gives the locals a solid 1-2 punch behind the plate. The Erskine signee is the older brother of Sawyer and both are cousins of Tripp Reeves.
Salmond, coming off a 2018 Legion campaign in which he batted .289 with team-bests in hits (39), runs (28) and walks (13), returns to his old haunt in centerfield for the fifth straight summer. Playing on Salmond’s left will be SV senior Khyree Miller, who belted six home runs for the Vikings while being selected to the S.C. Select North All-Star game squad along with Lanier. Jaiden Garner, who was a freshman at Coker this season, is back for the 17ers after having started in left field a season ago.
Stokes, who was swinging a red-hot bat in the second half of the season for L-E, gives P-17 another fleet-footed centerfielder. Laffin can also find his way into playing time in the outfield for a squad which should have no problem filling out the designated hitter position thanks to its quality depth.
“We have a lot of different options,” Carmon said. “We know that we can’t get everybody into the game every single day. Hopefully, and this is what I told our guys the other night at practice, we’ll be good enough to where we will be able to play different lineups and it won’t (negatively) affect us as far as production on the field. We don’t have any liabilities either at the plate or, defensively.
“We have good speed, we can play defense, we can hit and, we can pitch. We’re pretty well-rounded this year.”
Keeping POSTed: There are strong bloodlines on this year’s Post 17 squad with six players being sons of former P-17ers. That group includes Dalton and Sawyer Reeves, whose father is Will Reeves, and their cousin, Tripp Reeves, who is the son of the late Jay Reeves. Heath Stokes’ father is L-E baseball coach Randy Stokes. Bradwin Salmond’s father, Tony Salmond, played for the 17ers as did Davy Cassady, whose son Mason is on this year’s team. Additionally, Justin Dorton’s older brother and current College of Charleston pitching coach, Will Dorton, played for KC and was head coach for Post 17 in 2015 ... KC plays its League III foes four times ... Aiken plays its home games at Aiken High, West Columbia at Brookland-Cayce High and Lexington at the Lexington Sports Complex.