Patriots Face Vikes in Baseball Today
On paper at least, this year’s Pinecrest baseball team doesn’t boast players of the star quality of current pros Dillon Maples and James Baldwin III that helped win conference titles in 2011 and 2010. Nor an alumnus like Seth Maness, who retired four batters in a row in his spring training debut for the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday.
But Patriot coach Jeff Hewitt (13 years, 228-92) started four sophomores in last season’s first-round playoff loss to Millbrook. The team surprised by finishing 16-9 overall and tied for second with Richmond Senior at 7-3 in the Southeastern Conference.
“We’ve used this year to get our kids to understand it doesn’t take a full team of all-stars,” Hewitt says. “Our goal is to keep getting better with these kids. We’ve got a team full of underclassmen and three seniors — the least we’ve ever had.
“There is a good nucleus of juniors that have played a lot of varsity baseball.”
The Patriots head into today’s 5 p.m. season-opener at home against Union Pines with only two practices and two scrimmages under their belts in the last two weeks because of unfavorable weather.
Starting either on the mound or in center field and batting in the leadoff position will be junior Tristan Helms. The left-hander was a pitching staff-best 6-2 last season after making some important contributions to the 25-3 squad in 2011 as a freshman. He batted .247 and played errorless baseball in the outfield.
“Tristan has done an unbelievable job since his freshman year,” Hewitt says. “He commands three pitches, which allows us to call the game a little easier then when you only have one or two solid pitches.”
Anchoring the infield at shortstop, and batting second in the order, is another three-year varsity player in junior Austin Embler. The left-handed hitter dropped to .264 last year after batting .319 as a freshman, but still led the team in runs scored (25) and walks (28), and was second in runs batted in (21).
“He’s constantly talking,” Hewitt says of one of his hardest workers. “He’s a game-changer for us.”
The No. 1 right-handed pitcher is senior Matt Epley, who was 1-2 with a 2.22 ERA last season. He batted .286 and will patrol center field when Helms is on the mound and bat third in the lineup. When a third starting pitcher is needed, Aaron Reimer is likely to get the call.
The senior is also likely to start at third base in today’s game.
“He’s got a good sinker to go with his breaking ball and change-up,” Hewitt says of Reimer. “We know he can pitch well in big games.”
Hewitt called on as many as six pitchers to complete games last season and thinks that kind of situational mixing and matching will be a key to success again this year.
Nine of the varsity roster of 15 could get into the act on the mound, including senior left-hander Tanner Haley, juniors Jackson Maples, Jackson Smith, Hunter Phillips and Culley Bayless, and sophomore Seve Shultis.
Rounding out the lineup, junior Dalton Bullard finished the season as the starting catcher.
He is one of the strongest throwers behind the plate Hewitt has ever had. First base will be occupied most of the time by either Smith, a junior, and a big target, or junior Dylan Wallace, one of the team’s best hitters with a .333 average a year ago. Wallace is also likely to make starts at third base.
Hewitt is hoping Wallace and sophomore newcomer Shultis can combine to match or exceed the production of the graduated Matt Eddy in the middle of the batting order.
Eddy had one of the best offensive seasons in Hewitt’s tenure, batting .471 with seven home runs and 33 RBI.
A member of a military family, Shultis came here from Illinois and has now lived in nine states in his young life.
“Seve hit a home run in the first scrimmage game,” Hewitt says of the first baseman-designated hitter-pitcher. “He has as much power as anyone on the team.”
In the close competition between juniors for the start at second base, Joe Cirigliano has used his bat to push slightly ahead of left-handed batting Ryan Bender.
In the outfield, when Helms is in center, Epley will be in right with either Maples or Phillips in left.
Sophomore Carson Maples is expected to be an impact player after he fully recovers from surgery to repair a torn labrum. For now he has only been cleared to bat and will DH and pinch hit.
This week also includes a game at Southern Lee on Friday.
The first SEC game is at home on March 12 against Hoke County. Defending champion Scotland High and Richmond Senior look like the top contenders.
“I can’t emphasize this enough right now,” Hewitt says. “We’re a work in progress. Sixteen wins at the beginning of last year — we would have thought we’ll take it, but we still wanted that first-round playoff game (2-1 loss to Millbrook). That’s still sitting in our minds.
“Every night in the Southeastern is going to be important this year. I think our team is capable of finding itself in an interesting position at the end of the year.”
Hewitt will be assisted by Chuck Perry, Daniel Coles, Josh Haley, Ben Hammer and team manager Pete Sundheim.
The junior varsity coaches are Bill Permakoff and Brian Moore. Coaching the freshman are Matt Becker and William Garner.
Feb. 27 – Union Pines; March 1 – at Southern Lee; 5 – at Sanderson; 6 – Millbrook; 8 – Lee County; 11 – at Asheboro; 12 – Hoke; 15 – Lumberton; 19 – Scotland; 21 – Southern Lee; 22 – at Purnell Swett.
March 25-27 – Coastal Athletics Spring Break Invitational at Ashley; April 2 – West Stanly (endowment); 9 – at Richmond; 10 – Fuquay-Varina; 12 – at Lumberton; 16 – at Scotland; 17 – at Pine Forest; 19 – Purnell Swett; 23 – Richmond (Senior Night); 25 – at Hoke;
April 29,30, May 2 – conference tournament; 6 – at Lee County; 10 – state 4-A playoffs begin.
More like this story