Just a Bit Outside-Final Edition
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game — it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us all of what was once good, and it could be again.” This quote from Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones’ character in “Field of Dreams”) is as timeless and classic as the sport of baseball itself. It is also true and is the perfect adage for what baseball has done for all of us in the sports world this year.
The 2021 baseball season has paved the way for the steady and hopeful return to normalcy in the sports world as well as in America as a whole in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is baseball that was the first sport to bring back full capacity crowds. It was baseball that played the first complete season among all professional sports last year and showed (along with NASCAR), that we could have sports and manage life in spite of the pandemic rather than just locking ourselves away until it is over. Baseball is among the sports that championed athlete vaccinations so that we would not have to worry about quarantining and playing in “bubbles” anymore.
Baseball is constant, even in uncertain times, and this high school baseball season was no exception. The season was delayed. When it started, only parents and scouts/media could attend most games. There was plenty of joyful triumph as well as agonizing defeat throughout the last few months. But, like America, and like the game itself, our local baseball players endured and persevered through it all. By the end of it all, we could all just come together, like so many fans in major league and college ballparks around the country, and enjoy being able to be together again to enjoy the one constant in our time besides God — baseball.
Let’s recap the season!
Things all got started back in late March with the much-anticipated return of a Spartanburg County tradition — the Steve Sanders Tournament. The weekend tournament featured all but 2 of our local teams in action, and man was there a lot of action. In the end, it boiled down to 2 of the teams that were touted to be contenders in Region 2-5A in Byrnes and Spartanburg. Byrnes mowed through the bracket with strong pitching performances from Andrew Bright and Gabe Rogers and great execution at the plate, en route to beating the Vikings in the championship game.
The senior-heavy defending 2A state champion Landrum Cardinals were dominant all season long. The Cards used a deadly combination of strong pitching, speed and aggressiveness on the basepaths, and the ability to use that speed to their advantage by putting the ball in play to put pressure on opposing defenses. They executed all of that with deadly precision, outscoring opponents 310-65 on the season (an average of 10.6 runs scored per game). As of the end of the season, as a team the Cardinals hold a .361 average and a 1.78 ERA. On the mound, seniors Evan Siary and Patrick Clark both hold ERAs under .50 with 154 K’s combined.
Early on in the season, while they were putting up impressive numbers, there was some uncertainty as to whether or not they were just that dominant or if it was a result of lackluster competition. (Regardless, to consistently hang lopsided numbers like they did is impressive..). They had that question answered when they swept their archrival and the only team standing in the way of them winning the region — Chesnee in 2 intensely close games. The Cardinals ended up running the table all the way to the region championship, and were in control of their own destiny at 27-0 coming into the 2A upperstate district 1 championship.
Ultimately, Landrum ended up facing a tough Crescent team that swept them in a double header Tuesday night and handed them their only 2 losses to break a win streak that dated back to 2019. Game 1, the Tigers took 12-6. In game 2, Evan Siary took the mound and was absolutely dominant as usual, striking out 16 in a complete game. But, the Cardinals simply could not break through, having left the bases loaded twice and stranding 9. Siary left one pitch up that caught too much of the outer 3rd of the plate, resulting in the decisive RBI single, as the Cards fell in heartbreaking fashion 1-0. I feel for all these seniors, but they made a heck of a run to defend their title and it is very difficult to repeat a championship. After a year off, it is hard to hang your head at a 27-2 season. Hats off to Daniel Little and the Cards.
The 2021 season for the Eagles was full of promise. Chesnee has always been a 2A baseball power, so expectations are always flying high. They expect to compete for the region and they expect to make a run in the playoffs. This talented young bunch at one point this season went on an absolute tear and won 13 in a row where they swept a really good Chapman team, split with Broome, and swept St. Joe’s before they ran into their arch nemesis and the only thing standing in their way of winning region 2-2A — the buzzsaw that is the Landrum Cardinals. The Cardinals went on to sweep them, outscoring them 12-6 to all but seal the region title for Landrum.
The Eagles still came in 2nd in the region, and thus earned a playoff berth. But, the road to winning their district was going to be a hard one as they had the tall task of opening the playoffs with Gray Collegiate, who was 20-6 coming into the season and undefeated in region play, during which they only gave up 6 runs while plating nearly 100.
Chesnee ended up falling 13-1 at Gray in the opening round and then hosted a very tough Abbeville in an elimination game. Unfortunately for the Eagles, they just could not get the bats going to keep up with Abbeville as their pitching struggled, and their season ended with them falling just short of making the district final with a 12-5 loss to the Panthers. But, when you see what Chesnee was able to do and what kind of competition they faced this season, I would say they still were successful.
Coach Fusaro’s Panthers were very young this season with only 3 seniors and 5 juniors on the roster. But, from the way this team played in 2021, you would not know it. These young men fought through a lot of adversity to win the toughest region in the state in any sport (region 3-3A) and proved that just like with their football program, they can play with any of the “big dogs” in the area. The Panthers took down 2 5A powers this season, beating Boiling Springs 8-7 in the Steve Sanders tournament, laying an absolute spanking on Byrnes in a 10-0 shutout on the road, and splitting a double header with Spartanburg 3-0 and 2-0.
This young Chapman squad found a real gem this season with senior pitcher Banks Atkins, who had decided to give up baseball to focus on basketball the last few years and decided on a whim this year to return to baseball. They also found a true ace in Junior Ricky Montalvo. These 2 along with guys like Jacob Cogdell helped stymy opposing hitters all season. Offensively, Walt Waddell consistently provided a nice spark for them all season.
Ultimately, although Chapman was able to win the region, they faced a tough draw in the playoffs, as they had to face an offensive juggernaut in the Blue Ridge Tigers. They ended up playing a marathon 10 inning 5 hour game with lots of offense that pretty much depleted their pitching. The Panthers managed to find a way to persevere and win 11-10 to keep them in the winners bracket, but they ended up falling to the eventual district champion West Oak 6-4 in the next round, and were eliminated by Blue Ridge 14-9.
It’s not all bad for Chapman. The fact that a team this young was able to win that region and do what they did says they will be scary good next year. Especially with so many starters returning and a lot of good JV guys coming up. The future is bright in Inman!
I did not get to see a whole lot of Broome this season, but I certainly wish I could have. Ben Waddell’s Centurions were dominating opponents like Landrum throughout much of the early going. They had one of the best pitchers in the state that will no doubt be playing division 1 baseball somewhere in Jeb Dawson. Dawson threw a couple of complete games this year, and 1 no hitter. Unfortunately for Dawson, he was on the losing end of that 1-0 no-no dealt by Chapman who just used a little small ball to push a run across in the 7th to take the win and ultimately set them up in the driver’s seat to win the region. The Centurions ended up finishing 5th in region 3-3A in the end and missed the playoffs, but in any other region, they would have been a playoff team. These guys were good, but just fell victim to a tough region.
The Woodruff Wolverines were young this year and in a rebuilding state. They took their lumps but were not without a bright spot. 1st baseman and pitcher Zach Aylor proved to be a big help to this young team by being able to eat innings and throw with some effectiveness when he was able to throw for strikes consistently. He isn’t a power arm and doesn’t have a strong fastball, but he is able to keep opposing hitters guessing and pitches to contact so that he gets outs. I have no doubt that he will continue to anchor the rotation for Woodruff going forward. I look for Woodruff to be more competitive next year in general.
The Cavaliers had a great campaign in 2021, having won Region 2 5A yet again as well as advancing all the way to the upperstate championship round. Dorman was Jekyll and Hyde for most of the season, going on short streaks where they would win 2 and then turn around and lose the next 2. Pitchingwise, outside of Hudson Lee and Mitch Wilson, they didn’t have much depth, and it came back to haunt them in several games. Luckily, their bats were strong enough to carry them and in spite of the streakiness, they were able to put a run together where they won 5 of their last 8 region games to clinch. Their offense averaged over 7 runs per game and were carried by Hudson Lee (who was impressively 3-7with 8 RBIs on a grand slam, solo shot, and a 3 run jack in the double header they played against JL Mann to clinch the 5A upperstate District 1 championship) and TJ White.
In the end, Dorman had to rely too much on their offense to carry them as they ran out of pitching in the playoffs. In game 1 of the district championship against JL Mann, Jack Jolley elected to go for a bullpen game in hopes that they could win the first game and save Hudson Lee for the upperstate championship series. It was not meant to be, as they ended up using 7 arms, 3 of which were position players just to get through a game where Mann jumped all over them early to take a 15-11 decision that forced a game 2. They had to use Hudson Lee, who handled the pressure and then some, pitching all 5 innings and going 2-3 at the plate with 2 homers, 4 RBI, 2 walks, and another run scored.
In game 1 of the upperstate championship series, Mitch Wilson pitched well enough, at times not really attacking the strike zone and thus walking a few batters, but he limited Hillcrest to 3 runs (only one earned) for most of his outing. He worked his way through 5 innings before things began to snowball on him in the 6th and he was pulled with the bases loaded and nobody out. Davis Cardew came in to relieve him and ended up surrendering 3 more that drove Wilson’s final line up to 6 runs. The difference in the game was that Dorman just could not break through offensively, stranding 6 (4 in scoring position) while every little mistake they made in the field was magnified by Hillcrest’s ability to make you pay for extra chances and free baserunners. Losing game one put them in a tough spot as they had no pitching left and they had to win twice to advance. They had no choice to go with Hudson Lee in game 2, and while he was good again, the Cavs bats once again went cold and they were swept.
The Rebels were an early favorite to win region 2 5A with Dorman struggling to get going. Byrnes started off by running the table all the way to winning the Steve Sanders Tournament. After the tournament, they swept Boiling Springs and Spartanburg in consecutive 2 game sets and then Hillcrest in 3. They were 7-0 before getting shutout by Chapman 10-0, a loss that is really not at all a blemish on them. That loss did set the tone for Byrnes’ true toughest test of the season in a crucial 3 game set with rival Dorman with their hopes of winning the region on the line. Dorman ended up taking the first 2 games in that series to clinch it, but it was not easy for them. It lived up to the hype as both offenses combined to score 56 runs in the 3 game stretch. Byrnes salvaged the series finale that Friday 13-12 for their first victory over Dorman in 4 years.
After dropping that series, Byrnes lost only 1 more region game to maintain their 2nd place standing and qualify for the playoffs. It was not an easy playoff draw for the Rebels as they would have to open on the road at Boiling Springs. But they were up to the challenge. Rather than saving aces, both Boiling Springs and Byrnes opted to throw them in the 1st game, and it was a brilliant pitchers’ duel between Gabe Rogers and Tristan Smith. Ultimately, Rogers outlasted him, pitching effectively to contact & getting Boiling Springs to line out and fly out a lot. He pitched 7.1 innings of shutout ball, walking 3 and striking out 8 with 2 hits. This would ultimately render him unavailable to pitch again until the district championship should they make it that far. It would not come to pass as Byrnes depleted their pitching and suffered back to back losses to Hillcrest and Boiling Springs to be eliminated.
The Bulldogs came into the 2021 season ranked as the preseason #2 in the state. This was largely due to the highly touted rotation of Will Holmes, Tristan Smith, and Landon Ellis. Boiling Springs did what good baseball teams do — they kept finding ways to take 2 out of 3 and win their region series to easily win region 3-5A. Offensively, they were a scrappy bunch, always finding ways to claw back into games when they were down while balancing aggressive approaches at the plate with patience when they needed to.
Fast forward to the playoffs.. They got the matchup they wanted. A rematch of the early season series with Byrnes. I already touched on Gabe Rogers vs Tristan Smith, but let’s dig a bit deeper into Smith’s performance. While Rogers pitched effectively and efficiently to contact, if you were rating outings, Smith had the better. Tristan struck out 13 Byrnes hitters and walked 6, only giving up 2 hits and no runs in 5 innings. The fate of the game fell on Boiling Springs’ closer Carter Sloan. Sloan pitched 3 innings and ended up taking the tough loss as he gave up 2 runs on 4 hits in the top of the 8th. The Bulldog offense had a chance to bail him out, working the bases loaded with 2 out in the bottom of the inning, but Will Holmes just barely missed a walkoff grand slam as the ball was caught on top of the fence in center to end the game.
The Dogs rebounded nicely, shutting Northwestern out 8-0 in an elimination game meanwhile Byrnes went on to lose to eventual Upperstate champion Hillcrest to set up 1 more battle between BSHS and the Rebs. This time it was all Boiling Springs as Byrnes was forced to start closer (and our own Matt Castillo’s cousin) Connor Kuhne. The Bulldogs jumped on him in the 2nd inning where he gave up 2 runs on a walk, a single, 2 HBPs, and an RBI single. Byrnes was forced to make it a bullpen game from there, with Ethan Edwards, Kai Brooks, and Caden Roach combining for 7 runs on 10 hits through 4.1 innings. Boiling Springs went on to win in shutout fashion 9-0 to seal a berth in the 5A upperstate district 1 championship with Hillcrest.
The Bulldogs traveled to Hillcrest and would have to beat them twice to advance to Upperstate. The Dogs scrapped their way to an 8-5 win in game 1 to force a winner take all game 2. Boiling Springs controlled most of the game but, it all fell apart after a dropped pop up led to Hillcrest plating the tying run to force extra innings. Once again an error in the field, this time a throwing error on the shortstop led to a walkoff single off of Sloan and a 4-3 win for the Rams.
I only got to see Spartanburg play twice and that was during the Steve Sanders tournament. But I do know that they were expected to be in the mix for the region in the end and they lived up to it, finishing 3rd in 2-5A, just a game behind Byrnes. The Vikings also managed to win the City Rivalry series with Dorman, which is always something Spartanburg takes great pride in and wants to check off their list every year. In that tough region, with the youth Spartanburg had, I would say that all things considered, Wesley Brown’s Vikings had a pretty good year and have a lot to build off of for next season.
All in all, this season was very memorable and filled with excitement, and it has been fun having the honor of covering it. I am already excited for next year! Be sure to tune in next Sunday for our season recap edition of Just a Bit Outside featuring Jed Blackwell, Justin Mathis, as well as Anthony and myself.
Last, but most certainly not least, congratulations to all of the 2021 seniors out there! I wish you all the best of luck in your future endeavors.