2A High School Baseball Preview
Believe it or not, the 2023 high school baseball season is almost upon us. The annual Steve Sanders Spartanburg County Tournament as well as the Steve Coley Tournament (at Landrum) are just a month away. That said, it is never too early to get a jump on getting ready for baseball season. Each week leading up to the tournaments, I am going to preview each region/classification that we cover. This week, we will start with 2A and region 1-2A.
In 2022, St. Joseph’s Catholic High School won the region 2-2A crown, while Landrum and Blacksburg tied for 2nd and had to play a tiebreaker game. This year, St. Joe’s moved down to 1A and Liberty was added in with Landrum, Chesnee, and Blacksburg, making the newly-formed region 1-2A one of the more interesting in the 2A classification as a whole.
Here is a brief breakdown of each of our local teams in this region.
2022 record: 10-11, 7-4 in region (3rd place).
2022 result: Dropped neutral site tiebreaker game with Blacksburg 5-4, eliminated in district round with back to back losses to Newberry and Liberty
Expected Pitching Rotation (Order not yet set): Beckett Driggers (Senior), Jack Clark (Senior), Titus Poore (Sophomore).
In 2022, the Cardinals had a roster full of youth, including three 8th graders, 3 sophomores, and 3 freshmen. Despite that lack of experience, the squad under first-year head coach Justin Henson were just 1 unfortunate play away at home against eventual region champion Saint Joe’s from winning it themselves.
“It was tough knowing that as young as we were that we were really just 1 play vs St. Joe’s at home from winning a region championship. We are not worried about a revenge tour or anything like that. I think being that close and coming up a little short confirmed that even with our youth, we can play with anyone. It gave us some confidence that we lacked early in the year with our tough non-region schedule. So it just shows we can hang with anyone even with a young team”, said Henson.
This season, the Cardinals return basically their entire roster. Their infield will be led by senior middle infielder/pitcher Beckett Driggers and senior 3rd baseman/pitcher Jack Clark. Landrum also will see their entire outfield trio return – Sophomore Left fielder/pitcher Titus Poore, Freshman Center Fielder Ty Foster, and Junior right fielder/relief pitcher Sawyer Smith.
With everyone returning and a year of experience under their belts, Justin Henson is excited to see what his guys can do this year. He also has seen a remarkable team chemistry develop that he believes will be one of his team’s biggest strengths this season.
“We will still be young this year, but now have guys that have a year of experience under their belt. We have a team that has really bought into our system and truly cares about each other. They are more concerned with Landrum baseball’s success than their own individual success, which is hard to find these days. We’ve had some adversity and injuries during the offseason and it has honestly made us an even more tight-knit group. The guys have rallied around each other and have worked even harder to get ready for the season.”
Of the returners, Henson says, Beckett Driggers, Sawyer Smith, and Kirby Gentry are poised to build off of their strong 2022 campaigns.
“I’m very excited to see what Beckett Driggers does this year coming off a strong year both at the plate and in the field last year. He hit .382 with a .945 on base plus slugging percentage. He will also be a big asset for us out of the bullpen this year. Sawyer Smith hit .338 last year as a sophomore and worked really hard on his swing this offseason. I think this could be a breakout year for him. Sophomore infielder Kirby Gentry came on strong for us defensively last year, and we hope to continue to see him grow on defense and at the plate this year.”
Despite the wealth of returning talent, their improvement, and their camaraderie, Henson states that he knows that it is still going to be a battle every week with the new region.
“This region is one of the toughest in the state. Blacksburg and Chesnee are always solid teams top to bottom, and now you add Liberty into the mix, who comes into the season ranked #9 in the state. Blacksburg has some big hitters coming back like [Kolby] Capps and [Justin] Wylie. Chesnee is dangerous as always with some big lefty arms. This region should be a fun one to watch because everyone was tough last year and is bringing back at least a part of their core.”
Asked about the 2A classification as a whole, Henson closed with this.
“2A baseball might just be one of the toughest classifications in the state. I know 3A is happy with the realignment [referring to Oceanside Collegiate and other Charter Schools being moved down to 2A]. Andrew Jackson and Gray Collegiate have cemented themselves as staples in 2A over the last few years, so I would not count them out. Woodland and Mid Carolina have some dudes as well. So, it should be an exciting playoff this year.”
The Cardinals will open their 2023 season with their annual Steve Coley Memorial Tournament, which runs February 24th through March 1st.
2022 results: 2nd place in region 2-2A after defeating Landrum in neutral site tiebreaker 5-4, eliminated in district championship by state runner up Gray Collegiate Academy.
Expected Pitching Rotation: No set starter named except Senior ace Lucas Earls. Seniors Kolby Capps, Parker Cody, and Bradley Childers all return having pitched last year and will likely see plenty of time on the bump this season as well.
In 2022, Josh Batchler’s Wildcats were a fiercely competitive group. Like Landrum, they also were a game away from winning the series with region 2-2A champion Saint Joe’s, which could have locked up a region title. In the playoffs, they were just 2 wins over Gray Collegiate away from a district championship – even as a fairly young team.
The “Cats with Bats” lost just 2 players to graduation – Isaac Westmoreland and Bryson Davis, meaning that just like Landrum, they will be returning basically their entire roster with its core intact and another year of experience under their belt. Not only that, but among those returners are some big time sluggers, which Coach Batchler says should be a big help in making their hitting the strength of the team.
“We have some seasoned guys who have played a lot of varsity baseball. They’ve seen a lot in their time and they hit the ball extremely well last season. There were about 6 guys that hit .300 or better who are returning to the lineup. Kolby Capps and Justin Wylie both hit near .500, and Capps led the team with 5 home runs.”
Of the returnees, Kolby Capps looks to be the swiss army knife type of player coming off a breakout season to watch out for.
“Kolby has a big upside. He anchors us in the lineup and batted .486 with 5 home runs last year. He’s also a solid/versatile corner infielder that can bounce between playing 1st and 3rd depending on who is pitching. He also emerged as a reliable pitcher last year down the stretch and helped to secure three playoff wins (the tiebreaker game with Landrum, Central, and Crescent).
They also have a rising star in Freshman 3 sport athlete Brody Bright, who will see lots of time as the team’s catcher this season.
“Brody is an extremely smart and talented player. He’s fundamentally sound, a good arm talent, and swings the bat well for his age.” He will be a bright spot (no pun intended) for years to come.”
Despite the experience and hitting prowess he has returning, Coach Batchler concurs with Justin Henson that even with St. Joe’s now in 1A, this region only got more difficult and that each game will be an all out war, but despite what people think or what is on paper, anything goes when it comes to playing the games.
“As long as I have been head coach at Blacksburg, there have been no off games. You have to bring it every night in region play. Landrum will always compete. They are gonna scrap and fight. Regardless of who graduates and rankings, they can make a run. Chesnee is Chesnee. They are a baseball town and have a long tradition of winning. They don’t strike out. They throw strikes and they put pressure in your defense all night long. They will not beat themselves. If you beat Chesnee, it will be because you outplayed them. Liberty seems to be the favorite this year. They’re ranked preseason #9 in the state. I think based on that, people assume they are going to win this region. I guess that’s why we play the games, but clearly folks see something in them that make them think the rest of us are in trouble. I’m looking forward to finding out.”
Regarding the 2A classification and who might be able to beat heavily-favored Oceanside:
“Based on all I have heard and seen, Oceanside Collegiate Academy should win it all. They have 6-8 division 1 players on their roster or something like that. They swept Chapman [in the 3A state championship series] last year, which is impressive. Andrew Jackson won it all last year in 2A, and they are #2 in preseason rankings, so they will be someone to look out for. Gray Collegiate is a solid team. We saw that firsthand in the district championship last year.”
Speaking on where his team stacks up and who might be a surprise in 2A, Batchler closed with this.
“Right now, you could crown whoever you want. But, baseball is a game unlike any other. You have to go play. Both teams get a fair shot. The plate is always 17 inches wide and it’s always 90 feet to 1st no matter where you’re playing. If people write us off, that is fine. It won’t be the first time. I remember in 2015, we weren’t on anyone’s radar and found ourselves in the upperstate tournament. I have faith that the guys in my dugout are going to compete. I know what they’re capable of. If they give me all they have, we’re not going to be an easy out for anyone.”
I must preface with this — I was unable to reach Coach Wease for an interview, so this information is based on what I know from last year and looking over their roster.
2022 results: Struggled through the regular season until they split their last region series with Landrum to lock up 4th seed in the playoffs. They dropped their opener in the district round to Abbeville 8-3 before winning back to back elimination games over Cheraw and Batesburg-Leesville to advance to the district championship. They defeated Abbeville 4-2 to force a winner-take-all game 2, where they fell 7-6 on a 2 out walkoff single in extra innings after leading 6-5 heading to the bottom of the 9th.
Returners: The Eagles lost Pitcher Jacob Webb, Shortstop Landon Thompson, 3rd Baseman Luke Hollifield, Elijah Wease, and Left Fielder Jonah Epps to graduation. But, they return a core of 3 seniors and 1 junior that all started in 2022. Center Fielder Carson Williamson, Catcher Ethan Lawson, Designated Hitter Davis Rising, and 2nd Baseman Dawson Pruitt will be called on to be the leaders for the 2023 Eagles. Tucker Johnson, who played a few games at first base and also pitches, as well as Kohen Orr – a utility man that can play 1st, outfield, and pitch, will also return as juniors.
Last season, despite their struggles, Chesnee stayed true to the identity of their program. They have always been a tenacious and scrappy group that hits well and has a lot of depth and speed up and down the roster. Last year’s team had the uncanny ability to put pressure on opposing defenses by hitting the ball hard and just putting the ball in play. Despite all they lost, Chesnee is always going to be in the mix that garners a lot of respect. They will be young, just like the rest of the region this season. But, make no mistake, they are one of the reasons that Region 1-2A is quite possibly the toughest in the state.
Chesnee will open their 2023 season participating in the Steve Sanders Tournament, which they are always a favorite to be playing on the final night of, whether it be in the championship game or for 3rd place.
That’s it for 2A. Next week, I’ll dive into both of the local 3A regions.