As he was heading home in the wee hours of Friday morning from Thursday’s evening’s baseball game at Georgetown, Kershaw County American Legion baseball team pitching coach Will Dorton stopped by a gas station to fill his car’s tank. While there, Dorton, who still had his Post 17 uniform on, had a local police officer come up to him asking how the team did and who was pitching in that night’s third game.
That scene, said Post 17 head coach Craig Smith, says a lot about this team which has not only generated a full head of steam heading into Saturday’s state American Legion Tournament, but has also piqued the interest of more and more people in the community as the summer has gone along.
In what is believed to be the first time that a team representing Camden-based James Leroy Belk Post 17 has advanced into the state tourney, the 17 KC players and their four coaches are taking this all in stride. The locals kick off the eight-team event, which will be played at Riley Park in Sumter, on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. against Rock Hill.
“It really hasn’t sunk in that we have a chance to win it all,” Smith said in the days leading up to Saturday’s historic game for the local entry. “We’re just taking it one game at a time. People are talking, though, and we’re getting asked a lot of questions about it.
“We’re excited about this and we hope the community is excited about it, too.”
The 17ers headed into the final two games of their League III season sporting an 8-5 record and needing, at least, a split of those two contests of the three-game Sumter series to avoid a playoff game with Hartsville for third place in the six-team circuit. The first of that pair was played in Riley Park with the guests coming away with a 4-3 win in 13 innings. One night later, P-17 closed its regular season by taking down Sumter at American Legion Park, 6-4.
Those two games lit the fuse for the Smith and company who recorded three-game sweeps over Horry County and Georgetown, respectively, in their two playoff series to carry an eight-game win streak and a 22-7 record into the state tournament.
While on their longest roll of the season, Smith said his players have not let things go to their heads.
“At this time of the year,” he said, “there are only eight teams left and, everybody is good.
“We’re going in confident. We’re not overconfident but our feeling going in is that we can be the best team in the state on any given day. We can be that team that has to be beat.”
In gearing up for Rock Hill, Smith said he was in the midst of contacting coaches whose teams had faced Post 34 this season. Rock Hill was extended to five games in its second round playoff series with Union.
What Smith does know about his team’s opening round opponent is that Rock Hill High faced in-city rival Northwestern for the 4A Upper State baseball championship this past spring and there is no shortage of good players in an area which also draws from the Chester region. The 17ers are expecting to see right-hander Will Chitwood on the mound come Saturday against his future Erskine teammate in Post 17 righty Zac Bowers.
“They’re going to be a pretty good team. We’re going to have to play good ball to beat them,” Smith said of Rock Hill and Saturday’s contest. “We’re probably going to see the Chitwood kid. I think he’s going to throw in the mid-80s so, it may be a pitcher’s duel on Saturday.”
The 17ers returned to the field for the first time since last Friday’s series-clinching 6-4 win over Georgetown with a Tuesday evening practice. Smith called the session his team’s best of the season. “These kids are really excited and they are getting after it hard,” he said. “They’re fired up and their attitude is not about who were playing but that somebody has to play us.”
One thing which the KC staff preached to their players was that even though the stakes are bigger and the stage has more spotlights shining on it, they need to stay the course and go about their business just like they have done since the start of practice in mid-May.
“We got back together yesterday and I told our kids that, a lot of times, teams and coaches make mistakes when they get into these types of situations because they try to do stuff differently,” Smith said of playing in the state tourney. “A coach may try to over-coach his team and put in some new stuff for the tournament.
“I also told them to do what they’ve done all year long to be successful. Our pitchers need to pound the zone and throw strikes, let’s play good defense behind them and, let’s put the ball in play. That’s what has made us successful this year and we’ve been very successful in doing that. We’re sticking with the same style of ball that we’ve played all year.”
If there is one change which Smith and company would welcome, it would be putting a halt to the team’s recent problems of leaving runners on base. In their three wins over Georgetown last week, the 17ers left more than 35 runners on base. On Wednesday, the KC staff brought out the pitching machine and focused on small ball and getting bunts down and forcing the defense to make tougher plays than the ones which Georgetown was asked to make.
“We have to do a better job of getting our guys in scoring position in,” Smith said, matter-of-factly. “We have to put the ball in play and put the pressure on the defense. We can’t go to the plate with men on second and third with no outs or, bases loaded with one out and not have gotten a ground ball or, a deep fly to the outfield to get a run in. We can’t go up there and strike out. We have to put the ball in play and stay away from the double play.
“We also have to do a better job of getting our bunts down. Our bunts have not been very good lately. It’s not so much that we’ve missed them as it is that we haven’t been able to put (our bunts) where we need to put them which is down the lines to move the runner over.
“We bunted twice the other night against Georgetown and had runners thrown out at third base when we had men on first and second with no outs because both bunts dropped in front of the plate. You have to bunt that ball away from the catcher and away from pitcher and make their guys run to the ball to make a play so that we can advance our runners.”
Pitching-wise, the trio of Bowers, Grey Hoke and Grayson King have been the 17ers’ three top dogs with Tyler Bowers having come up big over the past three weeks out of the bullpen. Tyler Bowers has allowed just one run in 19 innings of work.
Smith praised the pitching of his relievers which include Tyler Bowers, Mikey Branham, Jake Brazell, Elliott Campbell and Bradwin Salmond. “It gets to a point where, when we have to go the bullpen, “ Smith said, “Will Dorton has some options about what he’s going to do. All those guys have been real effective for us. We haven’t had a guy come into a game in relief for us in a game this year and absolutely blow up and blow the game for us. They have come on in relief and have done what we’ve asked them to do.”
This KC roster does not have a player who was a part of Camden’s run to the 2009 AAA Lower State title or, who played for Lugoff-Elgin in the Demons’ 2010 AAA state championship run. For Smith, who played on Camden’s 1988 AAA state championship squad and was a coach on Randy Stokes’ staff for L-E’s run of four years ago, he hopes his players will take the time to soak in their state tournament experience.
“They’re excited and I’m excited for them because this is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them,” Smith said. “No matter what happens, these kids are going to have something to tell their grandkids about.”
There are several areas in which the 17ers may have an advantage of some of the other seven teams which will join them in Sumter. First, they have won a game at Riley Park this season. Second, they have posted victories over Sumter, Florence and either of the three teams (Hartsville, Manning-Santee and Georgetown) who will come out of the play-in series.
Smith said the team which he saw in practice Tuesday was one which he believes has the perfect disposition to play for a state championship.
“They are not tight. They were very loose at practice,” he said. “We challenged them, just like we have all year, to get after it. We had standing water in a couple spots yesterday and we had one player who dove for a line drive and dove into the middle of a puddle. He didn’t care. He got up and said, ‘Hit me another one.’ That’s been their approach.
“We haven’t had to say a whole lot to them. They are fired up and ready to go.”
Smith added he is just as excited about this state tournament appearance for the “other” Post 17 team which has been there every step of the way this summer.
“It’s all about the kids. I’m getting a kick about seeing how excited they are,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m really happy for our Legion Post and our members. They do so much work, just not manual labor at the games, but they put so much money into this. They spend about $20,000 on this baseball program every summer.
“I’m honored to represent our Legion Post and I’m honored to coach this group of kids. They are truly a wonderful group of kids who are representing all three of our high schools in Kershaw County.”
With the support from the Post 17 American Legion members and the team’s fans, Smith said his players have to only concern themselves on what will go on between the lines at Riley Park. And, the 17ers’ boss said, his squad is ready for this latest challenge and are not satisfied to just be a part of the state tournament pageantry.
“We’re going into a familiar setting as far as the field and the surroundings,” Smith said of playing at Riley Park. “We have a lot of confidence playing on that field. It’s a great ballpark to play in.
“Our kids have their eyes focused on the prize. They want to win it all. It’s not just good enough for them to just be there … they want to win it all.”