Steve Sanders Tournament 2022
If the ongoing MLB lockout and labor dispute has you frustrated and ready to quit on baseball, please don’t. I am not going to go into where I stand on the situation. Just know that as a diehard baseball lover and an average Joe just like most of you reading this, that I am with you. I am upset and angry just the same as you likely are. But, baseball is so much more than just MLB. Sure, MLB is the top level of the sport and the players inspire entire generations of young kids to pick up a baseball, bat, glove, and spikes. But, the game of baseball is so much more than its professional level, and frankly, the players saying that the stand they are taking is for the future generation of players could not be more wrong. Protecting the future of the game is so much more than just protecting the financial future of the select few kids today that will play beyond the little league level, much less high school, college, or the minors.
The future of baseball is in loving the game. It is in kids developing a lifelong passion and enthusiasm for the game that will drive them to keep watching even when their heroes are long retired or when their playing days have passed them by. That is baseball at its purest, and one of the best places to see that pure baseball being played is on your local high school diamond.
Speaking of which, it is now officially high school baseball season in our area. Over the past 6 days, four of our local schools hosted an annual preseason high school baseball tradition in Spartanburg County – the Steve Sanders Tournament. Broome hosted the Steve Sanders Bracket. Spartanburg hosted the Dean Jones Bracket at Duncan Park. Chapman hosted the Bill Metcalf Bracket. Lastly, Byrnes played host to the Jim Everhart Bracket.
I was only able to attend a few of the games, but here is my assessment of each team I saw.
Chapman returns almost all of their starters from last season’s team that won region 3-3A and made it all the way to the district championship before being eliminated by Blue Ridge. Ricky Montalvo is back as the ace (and DH when he’s not pitching) for the Panthers as well as Catcher Johan Rodriguez, 1st Baseman Walt Waddell, Shortstop Drew Settle, Centerfielder Devin Roe, Left fielder Landon Solesbee, and 2nd Baseman Jarren Metcalf.
This Chapman team looks to have a few question marks in the starting rotation outside of Montalvo, having lost Banks Atkins after last season. Against Hillcrest, Montalvo was fantastic, but he has had a consistent problem dating back to late last season with having one inning that gets away from him, and that hindered him Friday night. He did not have his sharpest stuff against the Rams, which is to be expected in your first preseason start, but in spite of that (going to show just how talented he is) struck out 5, walked just 1, and gave up 2 runs (1 earned) on 1 hit in 4 innings. Ricky lost his control a little after an error and a walk in the one inning that got away and ended up grooving a fastball that was lined to left but just over the left fielder’s head for a 2 run double. If Ricky can get to a point where he is able to set his mistakes aside and can keep himself calm, which I think he will as the season goes on, he will have hitters throwing helmets in frustration as they go back to the dugout.
Chapman’s bullpen still has some strong arms in it with Jonah Rollins (who pitched 2.2 scoreless innings in relief against Hillcrest, logging a K with 2 walks, and 2 hits)
and Jacob Cogdell anchoring it. Neither of them is afraid to attack the zone and they can change eye levels and get you chasing on an elevated fastball easily. That can only make hitters more desperate, especially if Ricky Montalvo already has them on their heels.
At the plate, Chapman brings a lot of speed. They don’t hit for power, but do a good job of just taking what they can get from opposing pitching, putting the ball in play, and putting pressure on the fielders to execute. But, with the pitching talent they have, they don’t need to score a lot of runs to have success. All in all, this team will be fun to watch, but I don’t know if they have the depth of pitching to make it deep come time for the playoffs. We will see. You can’t really judge from having seen them twice in a preseason tournament.
Boiling Springs as usual has high expectations coming into the season. I saw a graphic not long back saying that the Bulldogs were the best high school baseball team in South Carolina. It is just one of those things you come to expect. Jeff Lipscomb has built such a well-respected program at Boiling Springs. Year in and year out, they have great pitching talent and a couple of speedy guys and boppers that make things happen. To describe them in any other way than scrappy would be an understatement. They have had that reputation since the 2008 4A State Championship team (“The Cardiac Dogs” or “Comeback Dogs”). That reputation makes them a name that will always be ranked high in preseason polls. Just like Dorman, Gaffney, or Byrnes when it comes to football.
This Boiling Springs team fits their reputation/bill perfectly. They return a great arm talent in Tristan Smith, a speedy base stealing threat in Davis Starnes, an equally quick infielder with some pop in his bat in Luke Compton, and Ashton Smith who can play both 1st base and outfield as well as pitch. The Bulldogs do have to replace Avery Stewart, Jimmy Rosengrant, Jameson Bagwell, and Will Holmes, but from what I have seen, the guys filling those shoes are more than capable. They are just as scrappy as their predecessors and just as strong on the mound. They will definitely contend for region 3-5A, but after seeing Clover this week, it will not come easy for them. Clover was sneaky good last year to the point where they could be a nail in the road. Now, they’re more like a huge pothole blocking the road. The path to winning the region and making a deep run for the Dogs runs through beating Clover. The road to a 5A upperstate championship will also undoubtedly run through beating Hillcrest, as they look even better than they were a year ago when they won the 5A state championship.
Byrnes, same as Boiling Springs, is a well-respected name among 5A baseball programs, and much for the same reason. Much like Chapman, Byrnes returns almost their entire core group of players from 2021. Gabe Rogers, Grayson Selepes, Kadan Roach, Hunter Lancaster, etc. Plenty of power and speed returning and that means you can expect the Rebels to be in the hunt for region 2-5A again. The question mark for them is whether or not they will have more pitching depth. That ended up plaguing them last year when Boiling Springs eliminated them.
While I only saw them for 2 innings Tuesday night against Hillcrest, in those 2 innings they clawed their way back from being down a grand slam to tie the game. If they fixed their pitching depth issue, paired with the experience and perseverance they showed Tuesday, I think Byrnes can legitimately be in the mix with Boiling Springs, Hillcrest and Clover for the upperstate title.
I was also able to see a little of Broome as they took on Chesnee Monday. The most glaringly obvious thing that stood out to me about this Broome squad was their power. They can straight mash the ball. Not for home runs or deep fly balls. But they can really drive the ball hard all over the field. That is exactly what they did to Chesnee. While Chesnee’s pitcher was not making bad pitches and was getting the ball down, Broome’s hitters were aggressive, swinging early in the count and making solid contact, and they had no problem scoring a lot of runs early to put Chesnee behind the 8 ball.
Gotta give some credit to Chesnee — they showed a lot of pop to be as small a team as they are (in regard to size, not numbers. They have a lot of shorter and skinnier guys on their team. But they proved size doesn’t matter. They can slug). They fought back valiantly against Broome, but they were just in too big of a hole early to overcome. All of that said, I look for Broome to compete with Chapman for the top of region 3-3A just like last year, and it should be extra fun when they meet this season. I also look for Chesnee to put up some good offensive numbers this season.
If Chesnee is going to compete for the region 2-2A title, they will need some big bats with Landrum looking like they haven’t missed a step so far (they went undefeated to win their annual Steve Coley Memorial Tournament, which was also held over the past weekend at Landrum). The Cardinals lost their ace from last season Evan Siary, but their pitching still looks strong. Jesse Bowers and Beckett Driggers combined for a no-hitter in their 2nd game of the Coley Tournament. That same duo was part of an offensive onslaught throughout the weekend. The Cardinals lost Cooper Gentry, Carson Shipman, Noah Hyder, Payton Atkins, and Bo Burnette. The only returning bat in their lineup is Harper Gosnell. But, clearly the young guns that are coming up are more than capable of continuing Landrum’s trend of being strong at the plate and a threat on the base paths. All in all, Cardinal hitters drove in 33 runs in 4 games over the course of the Coley tournament, averaging well over 5 hits per game.
Spartanburg also looks much stronger this year than they were in 2021. For the 2nd consecutive year, Wesley Brown’s Vikings made it to the championship game of the Steve Sanders Tournament. The Vikings put up strong offensive numbers, en route to running the table in the Dean Jones Bracket while limiting opponents to just 3 runs. Needless to say, they have some strong hitters and enough pitching to more than just make a little noise this year.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what I saw from them in the championship game against Clover on Tuesday night. The Vikes went with Will Holmes as their starter, and he did not have a good go at it. He struggled with his command and just could not find the zone or his confidence after he had the first batter he faced struck out if not for a dropped third strike that went all the way to the backstop (which at Duncan Park, without a ricochet back towards the catcher, is almost an automatic baserunner on). It snowballed from there as he walked 5 of the next 6 hitters for 4 bases loaded walks, all on 3-1 counts. Ultimately, his struggle was the difference in the game.
He was pulled with ducks on the pond and nobody out for Emory Butehorn, who was very impressive. Butehorn pitched 5 shutout innings, striking out 8 and walking 1 with just 3 hits. He mixed his curveball/changeup away with a nice elevated fastball, which had Clover guessing at the plate. Of his 8 K’s, 5 of them were looking on pitches down and away.
The Viking bullpen also got some great work from Ian Squires, who pitched out of a 2 on nobody out jam in the 6th and got Clover in order in the 7th. His line was 2 shutout innings with no hits, no walks, and 2 K’s.
Offensively, Spartanburg was obviously put in a bad spot early, down 4-0 before they could even come to the plate. They had to play the “anyway on” game and just try and work counts to get runners on and try to chip away. But, they would have little success at it. They were able to work up the count, but could not finish ABs against Clover’s starter Cade Pilgrim, who was just phenomenal. He struck out 8 in 6 innings, surrendering just 3 hits in the shutout win for the Blue Eagles. Spartanburg’s best AB against him came in the 6th when Joe Cash drew a leadoff walk on him on a full count (cash was later caught stealing at 3rd 1-5 to end the inning). The big positive in it besides that the Vikings were able to work the count was that they also showed a lot of speed on the basepaths and closing speed in the outfield. When you have pitching like Butehorn showed and can run down a fly ball with ease, and speed enough to where you can go first to 3rd or score from 1st on a double, you will keep yourself in games.
Ultimately, I think this Spartanburg team has the potential to really make some waves this year. I don’t know what Dorman brings to the table yet, but the Vikings looked just as strong as Byrnes, and possibly with better pitching. It is very possible region 2-5A could come down to Byrnes vs Spartanburg. One thing is certain about the Vikings. They are fun to watch. They held their own against a very good Clover team even after a rough start and that means they can hang with anybody in the postseason. They’ll have to beat either Byrnes or Dorman to set themselves up for a run in the playoffs. But they definitely appear to be strong enough to make that happen this year.
With the Sanders tournament in the books, many of our local teams will be playing in other tournaments this week such as the International Paper Classic in Georgetown, where the Boiling Springs Bulldogs will be heading. I strongly encourage you, especially while MLB is twiddling their thumbs, to go check out some high school baseball. I guarantee you that you’ll still be entertained.
There’s also lots of great local college baseball to see as well, with the Carolina-Clemson series this weekend, USC Upstate playing at home (with free admission to all their home games at Harley Park) vs Xavier, and Wofford hosting Penn (all home games at Russell C King Field are also free admission). Baseball is so much more than MLB. If you love the game, you will enjoy it no matter the level you are watching. So, get out and go watch some fun, cheap, family-friendly baseball this week and enjoy the incredible baseball weather. Let’s play ball!