Tournaments | Story | 10/12/2019

SC Panthers fit to be tied

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Cooper King (Perfect Game)

JUPITER, Fla. – It’s a phrase that’s been uttered time and time again throughout the history of athletic competition, even if in this age of extra innings, overtimes and sudden-death finishes it’s not quite as relevant as it once might have been.

But it is relevant during pool-play games at Perfect Game tournaments throughout the year, and it goes a little something like this: “Settling for a tie is a little like kissing your sister” which is meant in the context that a tie doesn’t offer any palpable reward – except when it does.

The South Charlotte Panthers 2020 and the Scorpions Honor the Game skirmished to a 0-0 tie in their pool-play finale at the PG WWBA World Championship on Saturday morning in front of dozens of scout-laden golf carts, an outcome that handed the pool championship to the Panthers based on tie-breaking criteria.

South Charlotte outscored its three pool-play opponents by a combined 15-4 compared to Honor the Game’s 13-5 cumulative total. That runs-against differential was good enough for the Panthers to earn the automatic bid into Sunday’s 32-team playoff field; the Scorpions Honor the Game earned one of the nine wild card berths into bracket-play.

“We had scouted (the Scorpions) a couple of times and we knew they were an outstanding ballclub with some real competitive kids and they played the game the right way,” long-time South Charlotte program owner/head coach Don Hutchins told PG postgame on Saturday.

“Most times ties do feel like kissing your sister, but this one really didn’t because … we threw the ball really, really well, they threw the ball really, really well,” he said. “There was some offense but not a lot, and at the end of the day we come out at 0-0 and that moves us into tomorrow and the playoffs, which is what you come down here to do.”

There wasn’t a lot of offense because the pitchers from both sides who took their turns on the mound were nothing short of stellar.

Cooper King got the start for South Charlotte and did absolutely everything that could have been expected of him. A 6-foot-3, 180-pound top-500 2020 right-hander and a North Carolina State commit, King worked five sparkling, shutout innings, allowing just two hits while striking out six and walking one.

He threw just 73 pitches, watched his fastball reach 90 mph and was especially effective with his 73 mph slider.

“That was a really good team … and they were playing, like, awesome,” King told PG postgame. “They had a lot of energy at 8 a.m. and we came out and played really good defense. We didn’t hit much but we did enough to keep the pressure on and it was just a really good game.

“It felt good out there,” he added. “The slider was working well; I was really able to get into my legs and throw it kind of hard.”

King gave way to Cameron Arnold, a top-500 2020 left-hander and another N.C. State commit – there are seven on the Panthers 2020 roster – and he didn’t miss a beat. Arnold finished it off with two hitless, scoreless innings of relief with three strikeouts and one walk.

South Charlotte managed just four hits, two more than the Honor the Game squad. 2022 No. 138-ranked middle-infielder Parker Byrd tripled and Aiden Evans, Jacob Cozart and Carson Kelly each rapped singles.

“They did a great job pitching, both Cooper and Cameron; they dealed the whole game,” Byrd said. “We were just trying to get them some runs.”

Many of the players on the Scorpions Honor the Game also played on the Scorpions 2021 Founders Club team that finished as runner-up at last week’s PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers, so they were used to playing in pressure situations.

2021 right-hander Tj Melani got the start for the Scorps and matched King’s effort for five innings, allowing the four hits while striking out nine and walking one. Brandon Neely, another 2021 righty, threw two perfect innings, striking out two. They did their part but neither side was able to push across a run.

The South Charlotte Panthers 2020 reached this point of the tournament by beating the PG Navy Select, 11-1, in its pool-play opener and the fabled Ohio Warhawks, 4-3, in their second game. Outstanding performances from the mound carried the day earlier in the week just like they did on Saturday.

2020 right-hander Rhett Lowder, a top-500 Wake Forest commit, allowed one earned run on three hits with seven punch-outs in the win over the PG Navy. 2021 righty Jake Hunter, a No. 431-ranked East Carolina recruit, gave up one earned run on four hits with five strikeouts in six innings of work against the Warhawks.

“We lined-up out pitchers at the beginning of pool-play; we knew we needed to throw our best guys,” Hutchins said. “We just lined them up and they came through for us. Rhett Lowder led off the first game for us against Perfect Game Navy and threw a great game.

“He’s probably our number-one arm and they may not have been our number-one competitor, but I’ve been coming down here for 20 years and I’m a big believer in you’ve got to win that first one and go forward.”

While the Scorpions Honor the Game was recognized from the outset as an underclass team, the South Charlotte Panthers 2020 could by all rights be identified as an underclass team, as well.

The starting lineup featured the 2022 Byrd at second base, the 2022 Evans in center, 2022 Matt Heavner at short, 2022 Graham Smiley as the designated hitter, 2021 Carson Kelly at third and 2021 Sam Yelton at catcher.

“We’ve got a very young team this year,” Hutchins noted. “We just have the three teams – that’s all I ever have – and we just made the decision to roll with what we thought was our best guys in the program.”

Byrd agreed: “All these boys are great; it’s the best of the organization,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of fun these past three days and now we’re looking forward to the next day.”

As he gets ready to prepare his players for what lies ahead on Sunday, Hutchins took a moment to look back at Thursday morning when the Panthers beat the Rawlings National Scout Team-Sticks, 4-2, in an exhibition game.

It might not have seemed very important to casual observers at the time, but in reality it was all part of Hutchins’ master plan.

“We kind of have to go into (pool-play) thinking that we’re not going to bring kids down here and then (not) give them a chance to be on the mound,” he said. “Luckily enough we played an exhibition game … and we were able to put three or four of those guys in. All of those guys will be ready (Sunday) with very limited work; it’s a win-win.”

Before the South Charlotte Panthers 2020 even arrived here on Florida’s central Atlantic Coast, Hutchins gathered his young team together and tried to give them an idea of what to expect at the PG WWBA World Championship. His message, it turned out, was a simple one.

“He just told us to go out and try to win,” Byrd said. “He told us these boys are going to throw hard (and) there’s going to be some really good teams out here so just go out and compete and do your best. … Just take a two-strike approach and get your job done.”

The South Charlotte Panthers 2020 may have figuratively kissed their sisters Saturday morning, but they’re in a good place now because of it. They’re playing at least one more meaningful game on Sunday, and that gives everyone a reason to smile.

“I love Perfect Game tournaments,” King said. “This is something you’re working for all throughout the season and now that you’re here it’s pretty cool.”

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