Patriots Open With Union Pines Today
The Pinecrest baseball team went into last season’s mega-opener against private school power Forsyth Country Day ready to conquer the world.
Missing five all-league players from the 25-3 squad that included Chicago Cub draftee Dillon Maples and Division I players Bailey Rush (Citadel) and Joey Vecchione (Richmond), it’s safe to say this year’s Patriots will be feeling their way for a while.
Coach Jeff Hewitt’s squad opens the season with a 5 p.m. home game against Union Pines on Wednesday. Led by all-conference second baseman Cam Embler and catcher Bryce Owen, the Patriots are coming off two Southeastern Conference regular season and league tournament titles in a row.
The U.S. National 14 and under coach for the Pan Am games last summer in Venezuela, Hewitt goes into his 13th season at Pinecrest with a record of 212-83. Notwithstanding the player turnover, and a 2012 squad that includes six sophomores, the overall message to his players is the same — raise the bar.
“As a staff we have to stay really positive because this is a young group out on the field,” he says. “We’re going to push them to the limit, but we have to understand the bigger picture down the road. We’re trying to season these guys to be the best they can be at the end of the year.”
The Pats lost the pitchers that ate up almost two-thirds of the innings a year ago in Maples and Vecchione, and 25 of the 30 home runs hit by the team. But like most successful clubs, this one should be strong down the middle of the field starting with Owen, a .278 hitter a year ago, behind the plate.
“Bryce is as good as it gets,” Hewitt says. “We’ve seen him grow and we’re really excited about his senior year. He brings a lot more to the team than just his physical ability. He’s our team leader.”
Cam Embler, a senior, will be teaming up with his brother, sophomore Austin Embler, in the middle of the infield. Cam batted .313 and tied for the team lead in runs scored (29) and steals (10). Austin moves to shortstop from third where he was a year ago when he batted .319 as a freshman.
They are also ticketed for the lead-off and third slots in the batting order, respectively.
“I think it’s a very neat thing for them to play up the middle with the bond they have,” their coach said. “Cam is a leader on the right side of the infield. Austin is a fiery player always wanting another ground ball in practice.”
Sophomore Tristan Helms, one of the team’s starting pitchers, is expected to patrol center field when he is not on the mound. He was also a big contributor as a freshman even though he was hampered by an ankle injury.
The corners of the outfield will be taken up by junior Matt Epley, who will move to center when Helms pitches, and either senior Alan Watson or sophomore Jackson Maples in right.
Rounding out the defensive alignment, senior Matt Eddy and sophomore Dylan Wallace are expected to share first base and the designated hitter duties. Hewitt describes Wallace as one of the program’s most improved players from last year. Senior Justin Mace will be at third, backed up by junior Aaron Reimer and sophomore Jackson Smith, a transfer from Union Pines. Sophomore Dalton Bullard is the backup for Owen behind the plate and junior Chris Dejak is an infield reserve.
Even with the departure of the team’s power hitters, dingers would be down anyway because of the BBCOR bats that have been legislated for high school baseball for the first time this season. Introduced in college baseball a year ago, they cut home run production by almost 45 percent.
That has meant a lot of emphasis on “small ball” and situational baseball in practices.
“With BBCOR we’re going to put some bunts on the ground,” Hewitt says.
Owen will be in the cleanup spot in the batting order, followed by Eddy, who hit three home runs last year. Mace, who also has some pop in his bat, could be in the second or sixth spots.
“From what we’ve seen the new bats haven’t hurt Matt Eddy at all,” Hewitt says. ”He does a great job putting the barrel on the ball and is very powerful.”
The new bats have changed the pitching approach as well. There will be less reason to nibble and more of an incentive to challenge hitters.
Helms, a left-hander, and senior right-hander Weston Phillips, should get the bulk of the starting assignments. Helms showed exceptional poise pitching in relief in last season’s opener and in the state playoff loss to Ashley. They were a combined 3-1, logging 34 innings between them.
“Tristan can really tie up some left-handed hitters,” Hewitt says. “Weston has a fastball that tops out in the mid-80s and a nasty slider. He’s an ROTC guy and I think that’s helped him be a leader on the field.”
The Patriot coach is looking for Eddy to be the team’s closer. Reimer throws strikes and has improved his breaking ball, and will be another important person in the pitching picture.
Scotland, Richmond Senior and Lumberton will be among the conference teams trying to unseat the Patriots.
“Last year’s group was very successful,” Hewitt says. “What that has done is raise the bar to see how good these guys can be. Now, can they be as good as last year’s group? That remains to be seen. But I will say it has raised the competition and focus level in practice.”
Hewitt will be assisted by Roger Woolard, Chuck Perry, Dan Coles and James Baldwin Jr. Bill Permakoff will coach the Patriot freshmen. Barry Merritt and Bennett Johnson are the junior varsity coaches.
Feb. 29 – Union Pines; March 2 – Sanderson; 5 – at Union Pines; 6 – Southern Lee; 9 – at Lee County; 12 – Asheboro; 14 – Cardinal Gibbons; 16 – at Lumberton; 20 – at Scotland; 23 – Purnell Swett; 27 – Richmond; 30 – at Hoke; April 2 – at Southern Lee; 3 – Lee County (endowment); 5 – Lumberton; 12–14 Chatlee Easter Invitational (held at Union Pines and Southern Lee); 17 – Scotland; 18 – Western Harnett; 20 – at Purnell Swett; 24 – at Richmond; 26 – Hoke; April 30–May 3 – SEC Tournament; May 11 – State playoffs begin.
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