Piedmont opens state title defense
After winning a state championship and setting the Union County record for wins in a season, what can Piedmont High's baseball program do for an encore in 2014?
We're about to find out as the Panthers open their season with a home game against Mount Pleasant today starting at 4:30.
The Panthers lost their opener last year, but went on to win 30 of their next 32 games. Piedmont's storybook season ended with a 30-3 record and a 2A state title.
"We've got a lot of young guys that really want to go get it again," said senior staff ace Corey Sikes, a Western Carolina signee. "Everybody's hungry."
Coach Milt Flow relied heavily on 10 players last season, and six of them were seniors.
The Panthers were explosive at the plate in 2013, averaging 8.8 runs, but the guys who graduated were responsible for 21 of the team's 24 home runs. Flow said Piedmont will have to play some "small ball."
"It's going to be harder to score runs," Flow said. "Last year somebody different was hitting every night. We'll be strong on defense and our pitching should be OK. Our concern right now is hitting.
"We're working hard on bunting. We'll have to manufacture some runs."
The Panthers return three proven batters from a team that hit .347 as a group last season.
Senior center fielder Nigel Hester had a team-high .429 batting average in 2013 and he also led the team in stolen bases (14) and triples (five).
Hester has signed with N.C. A&T, and is one of four Panthers who inked a Letter of Intent last November.
Senior shortstop Hunter Jones, heralded for his defensive prowess, is a Charlotte 49ers signee. Jones batted .375 last year, and etched his place in Piedmont baseball lore when he yanked a double off the wall to knock in the game-winning run that propelled the Panthers into the state finals.
Piedmont also returns senior Austin Harding, who hit .350 last season with seven doubles in 60 plate appearances, primarily as a designated hitter.
Flow said his starting lineup in a work in progress. Harding, for example, could end up at third base or first.
Senior Carlos Sandoval, a reserve last year, also has experience at third base.
While the infield corners are up for grabs, the middle is set with Jones at short and Forest Hills transfer David Nash taking over at second base.
Nash, a junior, was The Enquirer-Journal's Freshman of the Year in 2012.
"David got a lot of at-bats under his belt at Forest Hills, so he brings some experience," Flow said.
The Panthers also welcome West Stanly transfer Caleb Dulin, a right-handed pitcher who has signed with Mars Hill College.
Flow said Dulin and Nash are competing for the job as No. 2 pitcher behind Sikes, who took the summer off after throwing his arm out at the end of last season.
Sikes, a lefty, went undefeated (11-0) with a 1.17 ERA in 71.2 innings of work, earning him Union County Pitcher of the Year honors.
"I took it easy this Summer and did a lot of rehab," said Sikes, who will start on the mound in today's opener. "I feel great now. My arm is back to where it was."
When Sikes isn't pitching, he will play right field. Senior Colton Greene, a part-time starter last season, is now the full-time starter in left field.
In addition to some question on the corners, Flow is still unclear at catcher.
Senior Josh Evans and junior Aaron Braswell are competing for the job.
Two sophomores have cracked the varsity roster, and will get situational starts — Drew Little will play right field when Sikes is pitching, and Todd Elwood will be at second base when Nash is on the mound.
"We still have a lot to decide right now," Flow said. "Last year was an exception, we didn't have to tinker with the lineup much. But some years we're nine or 10 games into the season and still moving guys around."
Piedmont has a month's worth of games to get ready for the league opener against Anson County (March 25).
Two of the four defending state champions play in the same conference now.
Piedmont, which was realigned to 3A last offseason, will have to go through defending 3A state champion Weddington and defending Southern Carolina Conference champion Marvin Ridge to accumulate hardware for the trophy case.
The SCC plays 15 league games that include three games in four days against the same opponent.
"Three conference games in a week, that's something new for me," Flow said. "You have to get guys ready in the preseason in case somebody gets hurt. You don't want to throw somebody into the fire without any experience.
"I think pitching depth will have a lot to do with it. Whoever has the stronger pitching is going to have an advantage."
Sikes said pitching was the primary concern this offseason after losing three capable starters to graduation.
"When David and Caleb transferred in, that helped our pitching out a lot," Sikes said. "Now our pitching is looking great. We're set"
In addition to Sikes, Nash and Dulin, Flow said Evans is pushing to get in the rotation. Jones will also see some spot duty on the mound, and junior Caleb Baucom has impressed Flow and Sikes this preseason.
Sikes knows the Panthers will need a lot of guys playing at a high level to win the power-packed SCC.
"It's going to be a challenge," Sikes said. "It's going to be awesome. There's going to be a lot of tight games, especially when we play Marvin Ridge and Weddington. It's going to be a lot of fun."