Panthers feeding off last year's state title
Piedmont High's 2A state championship in baseball last June has taken the energy level of the program to new heights, according to coach Milt Flow.
"The ones that are coming back are working even harder than last year," Flow said. "Hitting in the cage, taking ground balls. I have to mow around them sometimes."
Six of the seven seniors on the 2013 team were starters, and four of them are now on college baseball scholarships.
Four of the seven juniors were starters, and three of them have already committed to Division I baseball scholarships. Flow expects all seven juniors to contribute next year, led by ace Corey Sikes (Western Carolina), shortstop Hunter Jones (UNC Charlotte) and outfielder Nigel Hester (N.C. A&T).
Hester led the team in batting (.429), stolen bases (14) and triples (5), Jones batted .375 and with 28 RBI and Sikes went 11-0 with a 1.17 ERA.
Piedmont also returns senior Austin Harding, who batted .350 with seven doubles as a DH/first baseman.
Colton Greene was a part-time starter and top reserve in the outfield. He batted .278 in 12 games and started in right field in the final game of the state championship series.
Also back is Carlos Sandovol, who played in five games at third base and hit .333. Flow said Sandovol can play both corners of the infield and even second base, and is also in contention for the job at catcher.
Josh Evans was a reserve pitcher last season who threw 11.2 innings with a 5.40 ERA. Evans could be the Panthers' No. 2 pitcher this season, and also plays catcher.
Greene and Sandovol are playing football, but the other five will begin fall workouts with Flow and his staff the second week in September.
For six weeks, Flow will hold practice sessions twice a week.
"I can't require the kids to be there," Flow said. "But I'm lucky, they want to be there. It gives me a chance to work with the JV guys that will be moving up to varsity next year. I get to see what they have and they can get used to me. I'm a big believer in repetition. These six weeks give us a chance to get in a lot of defensive work."
The Panthers are coming off arguably their best season in school history, winning a Union County record 30 games (30-3) that included wins over 3A state champion Weddington (16-3) and Southern Carolina Conference champion Marvin Ridge (2-0).
Leaving a legacy
Flow, entering his 17th season as head coach, has been entrenched in the program for the better part of the last three decades.
He played on Piedmont's only other state championship team in 1984.
He said the class of 2013 is the most talented group of seniors the school has ever had — partly because three of them were also what he calls "No. 1 pitchers" — and they brought a lot of positive intangibles.
"Last year's team got along so well," Flow said. "When they would go do something there would be 10 of them, not groups of 3-4. They never quit no matter what. I'm hoping the guys coming back will remember those things and set the tone for us this year."
'What else is there?'
Over the past 16 years, Flow has compiled a 303-108 record with seven conference championships.
Flow has been successful, but winning a state championship puts him on a different plane.
"It's a really good feeling," Flow said. "Sometimes I think 'Well what else is there?' But then I talk to guys like Travis Poole, who has won back-to-back state titles (at Weddington). He says you think that way at first, but once it sinks in and you've enjoyed it for a while you start thinking about getting another one. I've started to get itchy about getting started again."
Repeating as 2A state champion is impossible, since the Panthers are moving up to 3A.
Piedmont and Cuthbertson are moving into the Southern Carolina Conference, where Marvin Ridge and Weddington reside.
"It has to be one of the best conferences in the state," Flow said.
Only three teams from the SCC will make the playoffs, so one of those four will stay home.
Flow's first goal is to make the postseason "and see how deep we can go from there."
His biggest concern is pitching depth. In the six-team SCC, everybody plays each other three times in the same week.
"I'm looking forward to playing in that league," Flow said. "It's exciting to think about playing three times in four days against programs like Marvin Ridge, Weddington and Cuthbertson."
Based on what's returning, Flow said he favors the Mavericks to win the SCC title for the third year in a row: "If I had to pick right now."
As for the pulse of the Panthers' program, Flow said it's never been better.
"The young guys in our program, some of them have been so motivated by us winning it," he said. "They say stuff like 'Before we graduate we're gonna get you that next one.' They've always worked hard, but they're working harder than ever now."