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N.C.'s Gore loyal to his roots

Jeff Dahn

Published: Saturday, July 23, 2016



MESA, Ariz. – Whiteville is a small city in the southeastern corner of North Carolina that, through the years, has seen its share of times both good and bad. The same, it’s probably safe to say, could be said about just any other town of roughly 5,500 souls located anywhere else in the country.

This town is distinct, however, in that it is home to Whiteville High School, which boasts a baseball program that has won seven North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) state championships in its history, including two of the last three Class 1A titles.

More than 35 years ago, back in the mid-1980s, the school went on a run similar to what it is on now, and won two NCHSAA Class 2A championships in three years. Those teams were led by former big-leaguer Tommy Greene and Patrick Lennon, both of whom became first-round picks in the MLB Amateur Draft in consecutive years (1985-86); in 1985, ABC News and the now defunct Sport Magazine named Whiteville “Baseball Town USA.”

“There’s a lot of history there,” Whiteville High School senior-to-be MacKenzie Gore told PG Saturday morning. “It’s a small town and everybody loves baseball, and there’s been a lot talent coming out of there. That’s the goal every year, to win a state championship, and we got it done my freshman and sophomore years; we just came up a little short this year.”

Gore was speaking Saturday from one of the backfields at the Cubs Baseball Riverview spring training complex where he is wearing the uniform of the nationally prominent EvoShield Canes and competing at the equally nationally prominent 17u Perfect Game World Series.

Perfect Game recognizes Gore as the No. 41-ranked prospect (No. 1 in North Carolina) from the high school class of 2017. He’s a 6-foot-2, 170-pound, hard-throwing left-hander who is playing in his fourth PG national championship event with the Canes in the last two summers.

An East Carolina University commit, he was named to the all-tournament team at the previous three: the 2015 16u PG WWBA National Championship, 2015 16u PG World Series, and 2016 17u PG WWBA National Championship, all played in the north Atlanta suburbs.

Gore has a couple of more important engagements this summer. He will be at the MLB-sponsored East Coast Professional Showcase Aug. 1-4 in Tampa before taking part in the premier amateur baseball all-star event of the year, the 14th annual Perfect Game All-American Classic Aug. 11-14 in San Diego.

“It’s really a big honor,” Gore said of being invited to the Classic. “I really didn’t think I was going to get in it, but it should be fun and good experience. I’ve watched it on TV and I always thought that was something I’d like to (be a part of).”

On Saturday, Gore was at an event that demanded more of his immediate attention than the PG A-A Classic some three weeks hence. The powerhouse Canes won the first two of their five scheduled pool-play games at the 17u PG World Series, and it was Gore’s responsibility to do everything he could to make sure they won their third. Only the four pool champions at the exclusive 24-team tournament advance to Monday’s final four with a chance at winning the championship.

“I’ve never been to Arizona before, and it’s been fun so far,” Gore said before EvoShield Canes director/head coach Jeff Petty handed him the ball to make the game-three start against BPA Rawlings. “I like getting out here with all these other guys, and you can learn from them. They’ve got the same goals that you do and they want to be just as good as they can. They’re all going to big schools to play Division-I baseball, and they’re all really good.”

Gore is a part of an EvoShield Canes roster brimming with highly ranked prospects, almost all of whom have made D-I commitments. Some of the other top guys include No. 120 Ashton McGee (a North Carolina commit), No. 154 Bobby Kennedy (North Carolina), No. 176 Austine Jeremy Arocho (Maryland), No. 185 Ward Hacklen (Clemson) and No. 199 Tanner Morris (Virginia).

The Canes have won some non-PG tournaments this summer, including the Metropolitan Baseball Classic played last week at Citi Field in New York City. They went 7-1-0 at the 17u PG WWBA National Championship in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago after rolling through pool-play only to lose a second-round playoff game to the Southern California Bombers, who are at the 17u PGWS this weekend.

“Obviously, this (tournament) has been circled on our calendar all year; this is a big one,” Petty said Saturday. “We’ve won this one before (2013) and we know what it’s like to walk out of here feeling pretty good about yourself. We’d love to win this one again and this team’s got the talent to do it, there’s no question.”

EvoShield opened play here on Thursday with a 4-3 win over the Nevada-based Chicago Cubs Scout Team and then dismissed the Texas-based Academy Select Sun Devils by a 7-0 count on Friday. Its games Saturday were with SoCal-based BPA Rawlings in the morning and the Arizona-based Tucson Champs in the afternoon.

A full contingent of scouts gathered behind home plate on Field 5 at the Cubs Baseball Riverview complex to watch Gore perform, and he didn’t let anyone down. He delivered a complete-game two-hitter without allowing an earned run in the 3-1 victory, while striking out eight and walking three; his fastball sat consistently at 88-91 mph.

“We’ve had a really good summer and this is a great group of kids,” Petty said. “Obviously, we have two ballgames today in a lot heat (the forecast high temp was 115-degrees); it’s going to be a challenge and we’ll see what happens. These tournaments are tough, and you could have one bad inning and that will determine your fate. … These things are like that. You beat really good teams and you could be cruising and the next thing you know you have one bad inning and you’re going home.”

Gore is coming off a junior high school season that was phenomenal by anyone’s standards, and one that ended just short of perfection. Whiteville was seeking its third straight Class 1A state championship, this time against Cherryhill, and at one point in the championship game Gore had totaled 81 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run. The Cherryville hitters changed that in inning No. 82, and went on to beat Whiteville for the championship.

Despite that, Gore finished his junior season at 12-1 with a 0.08 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 83 1/3 innings of work. “I thought about it after I gave up that earned run in the state championship,” Gore told the Wilmington, N.C., Star News newspaper of finishing with a 0.00 ERA. “I kind of wanted it and if I would have had a zero ERA we probably would’ve won that game. But it was still a good year.”

“MacKenzie is a winner. He’s won a lot in his life … (and) he loves competition and he loves to win,” the Canes’ Petty said. “The first time I ever talked to him on the phone before this summer started, he said, ‘I can’t wait to get out there and just help you guys win.’”

Gore credits current Whiteville High School head coach Brett Harwood and legendary North Carolina high school coach Linnwood Hedgepeth for this development. He has an offseason program that he follows – because of his spring and summer workload he has done no throwing in the fall or winter – and the increases in his velocity have come in 3-4 mph increments each of the last three years.

“I still have a long way to go but I’m all right where I’m at right now,” Gore said. “I’ve gained about 4 mph (on my fastball) since last year and it seems like I keep getting better; that’s the key. … I’ve gotten a lot stronger and I’ve gained some weight but I really don’t know (where the velo increase came from).

“I’ve been playing with this great team and I’ve gotten a lot better this summer,” he continued. “I feel good about heading into my senior year.”

Largely because Gore threw so many innings during the spring high school season, Petty and his assistants used him almost exclusively out of the bullpen before he made his start here Saturday, and he had no problem assuming that role; he loves having the ball at the end of the game.

He also gives a great deal of credit to his parents, Evan and Selena Gore, for helping him become an even better young man. His humble, easy-going nature is a direct reflection of his small-town North Carolina upbringing, and even though he will have traveled to Georgia, California, New York and Arizona before he heads back to Whiteville High in the fall, he has remained, in Petty’s words, “… just a really good kid, a well-rounded kid. And he has great parents.”

The 17-year-old Gore has done a lot of growing up in the little more than a year he’s been with Petty and the Canes, but he remains – and it’s easy to guess always will be – a small-town North Carolina boy at heart, and one with deep roots.

He’s already traveled from coast-to-coast, got to experience Phoenix for the first time this week and will be in Tampa for the time in a couple of weeks. After that, he’ll be away from Phoenix’s blazing 115-degree temperatures and Tampa’s high heat and humidity, and land in temperate San Diego, where on Aug. 14 he will step out onto the field at the Padre’s Petco Park alongside 51 of the other top high school seniors in the country.

The situation won’t be too big for him, Petty said, but people involved with the game will sense at once just how much the humble Gore values being invited to the party in the first place. He’ll soak it all in while making dozens of new friends from other cities big and small while never forgetting he’s the only player in attendance that calls “Baseball Town USA” his hometown.

“So the one thing I think you’re going to see out of him is that he will just really appreciate everything that event offers,” Petty said, “but as far as when he gets out on the mound he’s just so locked-in he’s going to fit right in. He’s that much of a competitor.” The good folks back home in Whiteville should be very proud.

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