Tournaments | Story | 12/7/2011

Sweet home Carolina

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game
They become Catamounts and 49ers; Cougars, Panthers and Tigers; Chanticleers and Paladins, Wolfpack and Tar Heels. Some grow into Mountaineers, others Pirates. Some may even take flight as Gamecocks, Seahawks and Eagles.

The South Charlotte (N.C.) Panthers Baseball Club excels at a lot of levels, but what it seems most accomplished at is filling the classrooms and hallways – and the dugouts – at the top NCAA Division I universities and colleges in North Carolina and South Carolina with some of the best young baseball talent in the nation.

Former and current Panthers may become UNC-Charlotte 49ers or Western Carolina University Catamounts in the Tar Heel State. Others move on to wear the uniforms of the Clemson University Tigers or Coastal Carolina University Chanticleers in the Palmetto State. In other words, most will continue their educations and playing careers in the Carolinas.

It wasn’t something South Charlotte Panthers founder/owner Don Hutchins necessarily set out to do.

“If you can get them recruited in-state, obviously in-state tuition is a big factor,” Hutchins said in a recent telephone interview with Perfect Game. “We have a large number of D-I schools (in North Carolina) and, obviously, some very outstanding ones and a lot of others that are pretty doggone solid.

“When we started this, the North Carolina schools – including (the University of North) Carolina, North Carolina State and ECU (East Carolina University), their rosters were 20 percent North Carolina kids. They got most of their kids from out-of-state.”

Hutchins said the key was to get the Carolina players better exposure in front of the in-state college decision-makers.

“We’ve gained some credibility with the coaches out there and they know if (the players) pass the Panthers litmus test – academics and character – that puts them on a pretty high look-and-see from most of these schools,” he said.

Hutchins has also tried to stay away from pushing his prospects toward just one or two schools, and with 30 schools playing Division I baseball in the Carolinas – 18 in North Carolina and 12 in South Carolina – that’s not a difficult thing to do.

“I try to make sure we get exposed to as many different schools … as we can,” he said. “I don’t get anybody scholarships – the kids get them. We just hopefully coach them up a little bit and put them in the right places to be exposed, and Perfect Game events are some of the best places for that.”

Hutchins founded the South Charlotte Panthers Baseball Club in 1998 under the original name of the Pineville Panthers. The organization has stayed compact through the years, and will field its two standard teams in 2012: SCP 2013 Grads (17u) and SCP 2014 Grads (16u). A statement from Hutchins to potential players that appears on the club’s website is direct and to the point:

“Panther players are scheduled to attend multiple individual showcases and college showcase events in addition to team play,” it reads. “The rosters are made up of young men committed to setting and meeting individual and team goals in academics, personal life, sportsmanship, baseball skills and team results.”

One of only a handful of exceptions to the “stay in the Carolinas for college” rule this year is right-hander Ty Buttrey, a 6-5, 205-pound senior at Providence High School in Matthews. Buttrey is ranked No. 35 nationally overall (No. 1 in North Carolina and No. 12 nationally among right-handed pitchers) and has signed a letter-of-intent with Arkansas. Not a North Carolina Tar Heel or a South Carolina Gamecock, but an Arkansas Razorback.

Hutchins said Buttrey was intent on playing in the Southeastern Conference, and South Carolina didn’t initially show much interest. Neither did any of the other more eastern SEC schools.

“We kept going out and out (in the SEC) and we got as far as Arkansas before there was anybody that really saw it in him,” Hutchins said with a laugh. “He’s one of those prime examples of kids … that really develop a little bit later. Arkansas kind of took a shot at him.”

Buttrey has played in seven PG WWBA events with the South Charlotte Panthers since 2009, and has been at two Perfect Game showcases, including this year’s PG National Showcase. He also played in the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., in early August, the only prospect from North Carolina to attend.

Hutchins doesn’t venture very far from his Charlotte base to find his players. This year’s 21-man SCP 16u roster featured 19 North Carolinians, with the other two spots filled by players from towns just over the South Carolina state line.

“We have a lot of outstanding talent in the greater Charlotte area, and when I say ‘greater’ I mean that I do expand some of my coverage up into the Winston-Salem area,” Hutchins said. “We found that as we put those guys out there in the competitive world in events like Perfect Game, they got a little bit of an awakening when they played some Georgia and Florida and Texas and California teams. But it also woke their eyes up and they realized that if they worked hard they could play competitively at that level.”

The South Charlotte Panthers organization entered six teams in five Perfect Games tournaments this year: two at the WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., and one each at the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., the WWBA 2012 Grads or 17u National Championship, the WWBA 2013 Grads or 16u National Championship and the Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational, in Marietta, Ga.

Buttrey, who was on the roster at both the WWBA World Championship and the WWBA 17u National Championship, wasn’t the only SCP prospect who shined.

Kirk Morgan, a 2013 right-hander and middle-infielder who is a junior at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte and has committed to East Carolina, made an impression at both the WWBA World Championship and WWBA Underclass World Championship.

At the World Championship, where the Panthers finished 3-1, Morgan hit .400 (4-for-10) with a double, two RBI and three runs scored. The Panthers won their first five games at the Underclass World before being eliminated by the East Cobb Braves in the quarterfinals and Morgan was even better. He hit .400 (6-for-15) with four RBI and two runs, and also pitched 1 1/3 perfect innings with one strikeout.

Right-hander Colby Barnette, a junior at Peidmont High School in Monroe, N.C., who has committed to UNC, joined Morgan as the only two Panthers that played in both the WWBA World and WWBA Underclass World.

The Panthers’ pitching staff at the WWBA World – all North Carolinians in the class of 2012 – was led by right-handers Buttrey, Jake Cochrane of Lincolnton, Brody Koerner of Concord, Mike Herbert of Charlotte and Trent Thornton of Charlotte. They were joined by lefties Brian Donovan of Waxhaw and Brad Stone of Charlotte.

Right-hander/third baseman Jackson Campana, a classmate of Buttrey’s at Providence High and a Clemson commit, was listed on the Panthers’ WWBA World Championship roster but didn’t play.

Donovan (Western Carolina), Koerner (Clemson), Stone (N.C. State) and Thornton (North Carolina) are among the pitchers on the Panthers’ WWBA World roster who have made D-I college commitments.

Other Panther 2012s who have made commitments include RHP/3B Payden Honeycutt (Navy); 1B/3B/OF Martin Koon (College of Charleston); SS J.D. Long (Western Carolina); C/OF/1B Andrew MacLatchie (Furman); C/RHP/1B/OF John Mangum (N.C. State); RHP/1B Wales Toney (Clemson); 3B/RHP/C Tyler Chadwick (Coastal Carolina); RHP/OF Cameron Tekker (Virginia); RHP/1B/3B Nathan Helvey (College of Charleston; Preston Tiller (Appalachian State); Jonathon Olczak (N.C. State) and 1B/3B/RHP Kyle Whitman (Clemson).

Class of 2013 LHP Alexander Bostic (Clemson), RHP/3B/C Jeremy Schellhorn (UNC-Charlotte) and LHP Jon Stires (UNC-Charlotte) join Morgan and Barnette with Division I commitments.

The South Charlotte Panthers 16u (2013) team enjoyed a lot of success in 2011. It finished with a 51-15-3 record, earned a No. 23 ranking in PG’s 16u Travel Team National Rankings, and finished in the final eight at the WWBA Underclass World Championship and the final 16 at the WWBA 2013 Grads or 16u National Championship.

That group also won the USA Baseball 16u Cup championship and finished third at the USA 16u Nationals. With a few key additions, it finished 3-1 at the 16u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational in June. The SCP 2012 team, largely the same group that went 3-1 at the WWBA World Championship, won the Dynamic “End of Summer” Tournament held at the University of South Carolina.

Hutchins entered a second team at the WWBA Underclass World he called the Show Case Panthers that was made up of top 2014 prospects, including catcher Ryder Ryan from Waxhaw, ranked No. 22 overall nationally in the class of 2014. The team went 4-1 and finished in the round of 16.

“The teams are getting better,” Hutchins said. “The kids are more developed and I’m pushing these guys pretty hard – don’t get complacent with success at the high school level because if they’re going to play in college they better be successful at that high of level.”

Hutchins is a successful Charlotte businessman who, as he says, isn’t “somebody who enjoys the beach or spending my money on a mountain house” and instead makes sure the South Charlotte Panthers organization is fully funded – by him.

“I really enjoy doing it … and as long as I can fund it and I get the right kind of kids in – I don’t allow anybody in that’s less than a 3.0 (GPA) because I found out sometimes there were character issues that I wasn’t going to deal with,” Hutchins said.

“We set some high standards and we’ve been lucky enough to put together some really, really good teams. We’ve kind of got a unique little model and we’ve had a lot of fun with it … and I enjoy getting out and finding the kids and I enjoy working with the kids and the families through the process.”

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