Editor’s note: Brad’s ‘Fabulous 15’ individual baseball player rankings will appear in the March 2 online and print editions of The Robesonian. Follow spring sports updates on Twitter using the hashtag #ROBCOBaseball.
LUMBERTON — Hitting is the identifiable question mark concerning several Robeson County baseball teams heading into the spring season.
Most of the projected postseason competitors — Fairmont, Purnell Swett and Lumberton — have depth in the rotation, but it’s production at the plate that worries coaches.
Lumberton, a program that’s won three straight Slugfest titles, missed the playoffs for the first time in four years last season. A team average below .275 was the leading cause.
“I think we’re going to be fine defensively and on the mound,” Lumberton’s Paul Hodges said. “But we’re going to have to find ways to win games in a tough league. Richmond only lost one player and there might be four or five Division I guys on Pinecrest’s roster. The Southeastern Conference is loaded.”
Purnell Swett’s Bryan McDonald echoes Hodges’ sentiment saying one-run games are commonplace down the stretch. The Rams must replace top hurler Sean Sanderson but return seven starters — tied for most in the area with the defending Three Rivers champ Golden Tornadoes.
“We don’t have that dominant arm like Sean anymore, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have pitching,” McDonald said. “We need production out of Austin Lee (Locklear) and Jordan (Swett) on the mound and hopefully we’ll swing it a little bit. We made the Slugfest final (last year) with only two hits the last two rounds, so that proves pitching can keep you in tight ballgames.”
Fairmont’s been the torchbearer for baseball the last several seasons, compiling back-to-back league titles and four playoff wins since 2011. Coach Sandy Thorndyke says as many as three sophomores will see playing time this spring, but it’ll be up to sophomore ace Cole Lovin and RBI-man Chance Leggette to carry his team.
Leggette missed the first month of his junior season with a hand injury but still managed four homers and a .513 average in 15 starts behind the plate.
“When Cole pitches, we’re going to be the same team we were last year, but the others guys are going to have to come around,” Thorndyke said. “We think we’re going to be really solid up the middle and have a pretty good defensive team.”
Red Springs, South Robeson and St. Pauls enter the season with heavy graduation losses, especially on the mound.
BASEBALL TEAM CAPSULES
*Denotes 2013 All-County Selection
PURNELL SWETT RAMS
Coach: Bryan McDonald
2013 Record: 14-11, 6-4
Opener: Wednesday vs. Whiteville
Returning starters: 7
Top players: Austin Lee Locklear (Jr., P)*; Jordan Swett (Jr., P); Ironeyes Locklear (Jr., OF/P)*; Drew Armstrong (Sr., C); Christian Collins (Sr., P/UTL); Braylon Locklear (Soph., OF)
Outlook: Coming off their first playoff berth since 2007 in McDonald’s first season as coach, the Rams will likely battle Lumberton for the SEC’s No. 3 spot behind Richmond and Pinecrest. Most of the juice in the middle of the order returns, led by strong-armed catcher Drew Armstrong. “We won with pitching and defense last season and we’ll have to find a way to do that again,” McDonald said. “We don’t have that dominant flame-thrower, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have pitching.”
Coach: Paul Hodges
2013 Record: 8-15, 3-7
Opener: Wednesday at Terry Sanford
Returning starters: 4
Top players: Justice Sampson (Sr., P/INF)*; Daniel Oxendine (Jr., P/C)*; Evan Odum (Soph., P/INF); Bryan Carpenter (Sr., OF); Raleigh Forrest (Jr., P/INF); Travis Suggs (Jr., OF)
Outlook: The Pirates lost a couple bats out of last year’s lineup — notably Terrance Rucker and Brian Phillips — but return the bulk of their pitching staff in a rotation that could be one of Hodges’ best at Lumberton. “We’ll be fine defensively and on the mound, but it’s the hitting part we’ll have to worry about,” Hodges said. “We’ll need to find way to win games in a tough league.”
SOUTH ROBESON MUSTANGS
Coach: Ryan Bullard
2013 Record: 10-9, 5-5
Opener: Thursday at Westover
Returning starters: 6
Top players: Corbin Hunt (Jr., 1B); Devin Smith (Soph., P/3B); Tristan Locklear (Sr., INF); C.J. Locklear (Jr., UTL); B.R. Hunt (Jr., P/INF) ; Bryce Nephew (Soph., INF)
Outlook: Coach Ryan Bullard likes the makeup of this year’s team without four-time all-county standout Timmy Carter and thinks his starting rotation will be solid with a couple of notable transfers. “Our team doesn’t have any superstars, but we’ve got a lot of depth on our pitching staff,” Bullard said. “The addition of Whiteville and South Columbus in our (conference) will make things very competitive.”
FAIRMONT GOLDEN TORNADOES
Coach: Sandy Thorndyke
2013 Record: 16-5, 9-1
Opener: Thursday at Dillon Christian
Returning starters: 7
Top players: Chance Leggette (Sr., C)*; Cole Lovin (Soph., P/UTL)*; Tyler Musslewhite (Soph., P/UTL); Zach Caudle (Sr., OF); Ryan Mayers (Jr., UTL)
Outlook: With two-time county player of the year Alex Britt now pitching at UNCP, the ball’s been handed to Cole Lovin — 5-2, 2.25 ERA as a freshman — to take control of the staff as Fairmont’s ace. “We’ve been fortunate to win several ballgames the last five or six years and feel we should be pretty good this season if our pitching comes around,” Thorndyke said.
ST. PAULS BULLDOGS
Coach: Kelly Chavis
2013 Record: 9-13-1, 4-6
Opener: Thursday vs. West Bladen
Returning starters: 3
Top players: Trent Jacobs (Jr., C); Justin Baker (Sr., OF); Travis Weyant (Sr., INF); Cody McKenna (Soph., OF); K.J. McBride (Sr., P)
Outlook: The Bulldogs will have a new-look lineup this season with top hitters — and pitchers — Jhamel Leonard and Dustin Canady, but coach Kelly Chavis is impressed with his players’ eagerness to learn and continue to improve. “I told my guys to expect some growing pains, because we’re going to be a very young team,” Chavis said. “We bring back 10 innings on staff with K.J. and that’s it. We could possibly have three freshman starters.”
RED SPRINGS RED DEVILS
Coach: Chris Howell
2013 Record: 14-8, 6-4
Opener: Wednesday vs. E.E. Smith
Returning starters: 2
Top players: Maliq Johnson (Jr., P/INF)*; Caleb McNeill (Sr., INF); Roosevelt Chavis (Sr., INF); Austin Brooks (Sr., OF); Antwuan McNeill (Soph., P); Nicholas Martin (Soph., C)
Outlook: Red Springs battled to a strong finish in conference play last season, but faces the arduous task of replacing seven starters in the opening day lineup. Maliq Johnson’s an all-county infielder who will bring his best stuff on the mound as well. “Overall, we’re young but the good thing is they’ve all been playing together all their lives. Age-wise, we’re going to have to shake the inexperience mentality,” Howell said.
Reach Brad Crawford at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.