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Tournaments | Story | 7/15/2019

SC Panthers are wide awake

Jack Nelson        
Photo: Jake Hunter (Perfect Game)

EMERSON, Ga.- The 8 a.m. game is a staple of travel ball tournaments, and in an event as large as the WWBA 15u National Championship, any slip up in pool play means your team will not advance to bracket play. The margin for error is razor thin. So, no one cares that you had to wake up before dawn. You just have to find a way to get it done.

Luckily, the South Charlotte Panthers sent Jake Hunter to the hill on Monday morning, and the East Carolina commit quickly erased any thought that his team would sleep walk through this one. Hunter worked four perfect innings, guiding the Panthers to a 9-0 victory over Warriors Baseball Club.

“It’s an 8 a.m. game. It’s early,” Hunter said. “But we’ve been rolling, so I knew if I threw strikes my defense was going to back me up.”

“It’s a grind,” Panthers coach Scott Clemons said. “And our team has been notorious for not playing too well in these early games, but today they were focused from the get go.”

“I think they know what’s at stake,” he continued. “We’re playing in the biggest tournament of the year, and obviously all these kids want to play college baseball. So they have to own it. We push them a little, but that drive to show up and compete has to come from within. That’s the kind of player we want in our program.”

The offense gave Hunter excellent run support, as they scored four in the top of the first and three more in the second. Nathan Chrismon was a standout at the dish, going 2-for-2 with three runs scored. Aiden Evans went 1-for-2 with two runs scored. The Panthers worked seven walks, and ran wild on the base paths to fluster the Warriors on their way to nine runs and a mercy rule win.

The early onslaught would be all that Hunter needed. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound righty pounded his heavy mid to upper 80s fastball wherever he wanted. He was aggressive, and he attacked all 12 hitters that stepped in the box. The Rockwell, NC., native struck out five, and needed just 41 pitches to get through his four innings. He threw 80 percent strikes.

Coach Clemons raved about his young, power arm.

“He commands both sides of the plate and can throw a curveball or a change up in any count,” Clemons said. “We talk a lot about making teams get two hits in a row with a wood bat. If they can do that, then we tip our cap to them. But we’ve been coming to this tournament for many years and have not seen many teams get two or three hits in a row with wood. So at this age, if you can command the fastball and drop a breaking pitch in, you’re going to be successful.”

A unique part of Hunter’s arsenal is that he will mess with the timing of the hitter. Sometimes he slows his wind up down. Sometimes he speeds it up. Other times, he will pause at a certain point. It’s a form of deception that Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman has made famous, and it worked well for Hunter on Monday.

“I’ve been doing it ever since Little League,” he said. “I thought today was a good time to pick it back up.”

LakePoint was teeming with college coaches on Monday morning, but Hunter has already pledged to coach Cliff Godwin and East Carolina. The Pirates went 47-18 in 2019, winning the Greenville Regional before ultimately falling to Louisville in the Super Regional. In recent years, they seem to be knocking on the door to Omaha every season.  ECU is an elite program that will be in the College World Series sooner rather than later, and Hunter is excited to be a part of that tradition.

“They first saw me after a tournament at Duke,” he said. “I’ve always loved ECU. I’ve been there a couple times, and the coaches there are just incredible. They’re really good people.”

The Panthers march on to 4-0 this week, and boast an impressive 35-1 run differential. The organization is no stranger to Perfect Game events, but a deep run in the WWBA 15u National Championship would be a major milestone for the club from the Tar Heel State.

The program taps into the elite talent already present in North Carolina. There is no need to take guest players from across the country. In accordance with the organization’s local touch, they historically send the majority of their guys to colleges in North and South Carolina. The Panthers have also had eight alums play in the MLB, including current big leaguers Trent Thornton (Blue Jays), Alex Wood (Reds), and Whit Merrifield (Royals).

“The South Charlotte Panthers have been around for 21 years,” Clemons said. “The organization was started by Don Hutchins, and we have one team in each age group. All of our players come from the North Carolina area, from Greensboro to Charlotte.”

The Panthers have been undoubtedly one of the most impressive squads during the early stages of this event. But Clemons said this team has made major strides in just the last few weeks. For most, the WWBA National Championships are the pinnacle of the summer. For the boys from Charlotte, it’s a great time to be clicking on all cylinders.

“To be honest, we weren’t playing that well coming in to the tournament,” Clemons said. “But we worked hard this week in practice, and guys have made some adjustments. Plus, our pitching staff has been tremendous.”

“Anytime you have guys throwing the ball well and you can push some runs across, you’re going to be pretty tough to beat.”

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