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Tournaments  | Story  | 10/7/2021

SC Panthers prowl Jupiter once again

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Eli Jerzembeck (Perfect Game)

JUPITER, Fla. – Not long before the talented 2022 right-hander Eli Jerzembeck was to make his Perfect Game WWBA World Championship debut in front of many dozens of scouts on the Cardinals side of the Roger Dean Complex Thursday afternoon, he was asked how he was holding up.

A Jupiter debut is always a special moment for a young prospect, even for a high school senior like Jerzembeck who has performed on plenty of big stages, including the 2021 PG National Showcase at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“I’m pretty excited to get out there and show everyone what I’ve got because I don’t think I’ve fully done that enough,” Jerzembeck said while looking directly into the questioners’ eyes. “I think I need to go out there and prove myself even more.”

And that, at its essence, is what Jupiter entails. It’s about a prospect like Jerzembeck who has risen to No. 62 overall in the national class of 2022 top prospect rankings and has committed to South Carolina continuing to embrace a golden opportunity to prove himself in front of the national scouting community.

And it’s about his hometown team, the South Charlotte Panthers 2022 under the direction of Don Hutchins, continuing to pursue a PG WWBA World Championship that has eluded them for 15-plus years now. At least one PG prognosticator went on record calling the Panthers the team to beat here this weekend and there is no denying they look to have championship chops.

The South Charlotte Panthers 2023 club is coming off a runner-up finish at last weekend’s PG WWBA Underclass World Championship over in Fort Myers and nine players who with that team (it finished 8-1-0) are rostered with the 2022s this weekend.

Included among the high-impact players in that group are 2024 outfielders Evan Macintyre (No. 246, uncommitted) and Drew Downs (No. 383, uncommitted) and corner-infielder Ethan Wagner (No. 291, uncommitted), all three of whom started Thursday’s game for the Panthers 2022.

Macintyre turned-in an MVP-caliber performance in Fort Myers last week, going 9-for-13 (.692) with two doubles and a triple while boasting a .700 OBP, driving in 11 runs and scoring seven. His performance there, Hutchins said, earned him a spot on this Jupiter roster.

“We had all the guys pitching good and everyone was playing like we were supposed to and we just came up a little short in the end,” Macintyre told PG Thursday. “But it was a good run for all of us out there. All the guys that did well last weekend, it was just a warm-up for this week, pretty much.

“I’m just trying to catch a bunch of advice from the guys and know my place and take it all in at one time. This is a great organization and we do everything together and it’s a real tight bond here.”

When talking about the top sophomores on this Panthers 2022 roster, it would be a big-time drop the ball moment to not mention Samuel Cozart, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound righthander out of High Point, N.C. Cozart, a Mississippi State commit, is ranked No. 2 overall in national class of 2024.

The 2023 class is led by the right-handers Chance Mako (No. 49, N.C. State) and Heath Andrews (No. 299, N.C. State) and lefties K. Xavier Pelzer (No. 498, South Carolina) and Max White (t-500, North Carolina), and middle-infielder Isaac Armstrong (No. 131, East Carolina) is also highly regarded. Mako, a 6-foot-5, 180-pounder, was named the MV Pitcher at the WWBA Underclass World Championship.

Which at long last brings the 2022s to the forefront, where they so rightly belong. Hutchins pointed out that infielders Parker Byrd (No. 245, East Carolina), Logan Wagner (No. 178, Louisville), Matt Heavner (No. 395, N.C. State) and Garrett Michel (t-500, Virginia Tech), and outfielder Aiden Evans (t-500, UNC-Wilmington) were all starters for the Panthers here in Jupiter two years ago as sophomores.

“We only have one team per age-group and we bring what we feel like is our best,” Hutchins said. “So for those guys, this is their third year for (them) to be here and they’re a pretty special group. … Those guys are special in that they have been here in the starting lineup for three years with me.

“Part of our program is to bring those guys along that complement what we feel like is the best team we can put on the field. I’ve got three ‘24s in the lineup this week and they’ll be starters for us.”

Other top 2022s include the catchers Graham Smiley (No. 331, N.C. State) and Trey Way (t-500, Virginia Tech), the right-handers Cameron Padgett (t-500, North Carolina) and Mason Murdock (No. 343, UNC-Wilmington) and the lefties Andrew Sentlinger (t-500, Virginia Tech) and Ryan White (Western Carolina); the list goes on.

Experience can be an ace in the hole at the WWBA World Championship, and while there is absolutely no feeling of superiority with these Panthers veterans, it’s evident by the way they carry themselves that they have developed a quiet confidence.

They’ve performed on this incredible platform before so they know what to expect, they know what it takes to succeed and they ultimately pool their talents and get the job done. While there is a lot that goes into it in terms of being held accountable, it often comes down to simply maintaining a certain tunnel-vision.

“We’re really focused on not playing as individuals to (impress the) scouts; we’re focused on playing as a team,” Hutchins said. “So we try to focus on playing for the team and to win, and then the scouts will come.”

To that end, Hutchins has named Parker Byrd and Matt Heavner team captains for the week, something he said he rarely does. It’s really nothing more than a recognition of the leadership skills they’ve exhibited over the last three or four years. They are the guys he’s looking for to put their arms around a younger guy and assure them that no stage is too big.

“It’s an honor,” Byrd said of the captain designation. “To play with such a great organization like these guys and to be named captain is just an honor. There’s a bunch of great kids and great players in this organization and it’s an honor to help lead them all.”

When speaking with Hutchins and his players, a listener will hear the word “family” quite often and while that’s a work that can be overused when the conversation turns to team chemistry, with these guys it comes across as sincere.

This almost a neighborhood team, at least compared to the powerhouse scout teams that build rosters with players coming in from coast-to-coast. The Panthers are by and large Carolina boys and their college commitments are to schools like North Carolina, N.C. State, East Carolina and UNC-Wilmington. It’s understandable that Carolina kid wouldn’t want to venture too far away from his mom’s Carolina cooking.

“We just all kind of know what’s expected and we just go out there and compete,” Byrd said of the family atmosphere. “We think things will play out and pan out the way we want it to if we just go out there and play hard; everything will work out in favor of us. …

“Other organizations come in here and these guys are meeting for the first time while they’re getting their equipment. We have a bond and I honestly think that helps us win ballgames because we know each other and we know how we play.”

Added Jerzembeck, who has been with the program for three years:

“I’m the type of guy where I’m big on loyalty and you stay with the (people) who have done you right. They’re family and I wouldn’t want to be with anyone else. I’m the kind of guy that if I’m not comfortable I would get out of there but it’s not that way here.”

The Panthers were one of three dozen teams to play exhibition games either Wednesday night or Thursday morning before diving into pool-play, and in South Charlotte’s case, it played its exhibition just a couple of hours before its pool-play opener.

The main reason for doing so, Hutchins said, is to get pitchers out on the mound to get acclimated before they’ll be called upon later in the weekend. It’s a way to make sure those players see the mound and aren’t left high-and-dry in the event there is no deep playoff run, which with the Panthers’ recent history doesn’t seem likely.

“I just have a little problem with bringing a kid down here and not  putting him on the mound,” Hutchins said. “We treat it like a regular game and we coach it like a regular game and it just kind of takes the butterflies out because these kids may have played 150 travel ball games but they still come out here nervous at this event.”

The South Charlotte Panthers 2022 beat the San Diego Padres Scout Team 6-2, in their Jupiter opener Thursday behind a six-inning, five-hit, 10-strikeout effort from Jerzembeck, who didn’t allow an earned run. Logan Wagner doubled, tripled, drove in a run and scored two others and Nathan Chrismon singled with a pair of RBI.

“The environment is great; it’s kind of like one big competition,” Jerzembeck said. “Everyone knows they’re good; everyone else is good and it’s pretty exciting to go up against everyone who is just as good, and you’re right up there with everyone else.”

The old salt Byrd, playing in Jupiter for the third time, and the young gun Macintyre both expressed the excitement brought on just by being at the Roger Dean Complex where dodging scout-filled golf carts becomes a sport in itself. Don’t criticize a person on foot for feeling like a matador on occasion.

Macintyre spoke of how grateful he is for the opportunity while Byrd spoke with the wisdom of the veteran he is: “It’s kind of really bittersweet because it’s the last ride with these boys – I’ve been playing with them since my eighth-grade year – so we’re going to try it one more time as a family and win it all,” the senior said.

Hutchins, the program founder, spoke like the adult in the room, with a foot in the past, a foot in the present and an eye on the future.

“It keeps getting bigger and it definitely is something the kids in our program look forward to,” Hutchins said. “I challenge them and I said we’ve got to do well this year or we won’t get invited back next year. We’ve come since 2005 so we’ve been here quite a few years in a row but if we don’t show we deserve to be here we ain’t coming back. Winning it’s a goal but coming back is always a goal as well.”