By CHRIS DEARING
Coming off what many consider a down year in baseball across the Midlands, 2017 could see a huge resurgence.
No team in the Midlands competed in the championship round for a state title in 2016 and only Airport advanced as far as Lower State Finals. Since 2010, Gilbert, Lugoff-Elgin, A.C. Flora (2012-2014), White Knoll and Lexington have claimed state crowns and several programs could be viable contenders come May when the playoffs open.
The focus has to start with the teams in the rugged Region 5-AAAAA. Dutch Fork, Lexington and River Bluff each have enough talent to be crowned the first-ever Class AAAAA champion. Blythewood and White Knoll could each surprise and Irmo and Spring Valley are each capable of winning on any given night.
But the talent is not limited to just those schools.
“I think our region stacks up with anyone in the state but I’ve seen some of the other teams from the area and they have a chance to be pretty good as well,” long-time Lexington coach Brian Hucks said. “We scrimmaged Gilbert and it was 1-0 after 10 innings. A.C. Flora has a chance to be really good and I think Airport has an opportunity to compete too.”
Hucks called Dutch Fork and River Bluff the best offensive teams in the region but the strength of the region could be pitching. Jordan Beatson (Dutch Fork), Jon Scott (Lexington), Stephen Kight (River Bluff), Ryan Harbin (White Knoll) and Todd Mattox (Blythewood) are top of the rotation guys that will be hard to beat.
“This sounds like coach-speak but every region game, somebody is going to be pretty good on the mound,” Hucks said. “I think everybody will be capable of pitching. It’s going to come down to whoever plays the best defense and delivers key hits in crucial situations.”
Josh Senter (River Bluff), Aaron Adams (River Bluff), Ward Hacklen (Dutch Fork), Aidan Massey (Blythewood), Jared Kirven (Lexington) Dalton Landsdowne (Lexington) and Tanner Lane (White Knoll) will be some of the top hitters in the region.
“I do think our pitching will keep us in most of our games but you just don’t know whow this thing will shake out,” Hucks said.
The most impressive start of the season could have been provided by A.C. Flora. The Falcons won the NutrChem Invitational that featured two defending state champions and eight teams ranked in the top 10 of their respective classifications.
A.C. Flora defeated Wren, Dorman, Belton Honea-Path and River Bluff to win the tournament.
Coleman Pope, Charles Chapman, Will Bethea, Jonathan Hernandez and Botkin lead a talented and experienced roster.
“A.C. Flora was very impressive in what they did in our tournament and they did it without Lane Botkin,” Hucks said. “Andy (Hallett) has a team that is very fitting of his style where they are fast and athletic and do a ton of bunting and they apply constant pressure on you.”
Gilbert has plenty of pitching depth and will be a force in Class AAA. The Indians will rely on Mark Kneece, Tyler Berry, Jacob Rye and Joseph Mims lead a deep roster.
Cardinal Newman has USC commitment Cam Tringali as the ace of the staff and Ben Lippen could be a contender with a solid nucleus returning and several newcomers led by Chapin transfer Trad Beatty.
Chapin nearly played for a state championship last season and could find itself back in contention this season. The Eagles finished last season 24-9 and lost to Union County Upper State finals. Coach Jason Jolley lost three key starters but have plenty of experience returning.
Hannah Davis, Mak Whitman, Tracy Truesdale, Caitlin Toole, Cameron Criminger, Molly Burns, Kimber Bradley, Haley Truesdale and Alex Miller will be relied on trying to get the Eagles back into title contention.
Baleigh Lunsford of Lugoff-Elgin could be the top pitcher in the area and state. The Demons lost in the Upper State finals to Byrnes. Lunsford went 25-4 with a 1.30 ERA and 161 strike outs.
White Knoll returns N.C. State commitment Hannah Goodwin (.462, 6 home runs) and seemed to have turned the corner in entering the fourth season under coach April Farr.
Alex Fulmer hit .593 with 12 home runs for Mid-Carolina.