RED SPRINGS — Sandy Thorndyke doesn’t lose sleep over what others say about his 2A baseball program at Fairmont.
But he knows the little brother moniker will begin to a simmer if his top-seeded Golden Tornadoes, who come into this year’s Robeson County Slugfest at Red Springs on a 15-game winning streak, can topple a 4A rival in Tuesday night’s championship game.
“We catch a lot of flack from some of the larger programs about the schedule we play and that we can’t do this or we can’t do that,” Thorndyke said. “We can’t help who we play. Whiteville’s a pretty good team, South Columbus is a pretty good team and we’ve been a good team the last few years. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Said to be down with five underclassmen starters, Fairmont (17-1) clinched its fourth consecutive Three Rivers Conference championship last week at Whiteville behind Cole Lovin’s two-hit, 10-strikeout gem. His five wins is most in the area this season and a sparkling 0.40 ERA is lowest among pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings.
Thorndyke feels his team, which has thrown 17 straight scoreless frames, is flying under the radar a bit despite the near record-setting start and No. 2 overall ranking in the state according to the latest Impact Baseball poll.
“I like the group of players we have and the program we’ve been able to build at Fairmont, especially this season since we’re so young,” Thorndyke said. “There’s always negative things said about us, but we just play baseball. I don’t take the credit for our success, it’s all about the players.
“Without the players, you’re not going to win.”
Three-time defending champion Lumberton, tied for first in the Southeastern Conference with Richmond, was picked as the No. 3 seed by participating coaches. The only squad in the tournament armed with three interchangeable starters at the top of the rotation, coach Paul Hodges likes his team’s chances in what amounts to a three-game series over spring break.
The Pirates open against Freedom Christian Saturday at 10 a.m. with Raleigh Forrest getting the nod on the mound.
“I’m not going to lie to you, we were disappointed with the seeding,” Hodges said. “We probably have the toughest road of any team to the championship. Based on the scouting report I have on Freedom Christian, they’re a pretty good ballclub. If you’re going to win the tournament, you want to beat the good teams.”
During the tournament’s first decade, Lumberton played in two championship games with one title, beating Purnell Swett, 8-3, in 2002. Since, the Pirates have dominated the competition with a business-like approach and have reached the final eight times with seven victories.
“Fairmont and Purnell Swett have good teams, but we always have the confidence that we’re going to win it every year,” said Lumberton senior Justice Sampson.
The Pirates (11-6) have won back-to-back game in the SEC to pull even with the Raiders and opportunistic hitting along with stellar play in the field has been the key.
“Defensively, we’ve finally found our niche,” Hodges said. “We’ve been able to cut errors down and that’s led to wins. Where we go from here depends on our pitching and hitting.”
Swett battles St. Pauls in its first-round game, hoping to string together a couple of wins to strengthen playoff chances. The Bulldogs are coached by former Ram skipper Kelly Chavis and have the county’s worst record this season at 2-15.
Last week’s loss to Richmond was Swett’s fourth straight and eliminated any shot at finishing with an automatic postseason berth as a top three conference finisher. The Rams started 8-0, but have fallen on hard times since, losing six of its last seven games.
Red Springs’ Tom Cope Park, the county’s largest field based on outfield dimensions, is heaven for pitchers which should benefit the tournament’s top three seeds.
Lumberton and Fairmont are equipped with the Slugfest’s best staffs and Purnell Swett, the No. 2 seed, is reliable at the back end. The Golden Tornadoes haven’t given up a home run all season and none have been hit at Red Springs’ home field in 2014.
“I don’t think many teams are going to have to worry about the long ball and we usually don’t with the BBCOR bats anyway,” Thorndyke said. “We’ve only hit five home runs as a team this season and Chance (Leggette) has four of them.”
Swett’s averaging 4.9 runs per game in SEC play compared to 15.6 per contest during the non-conference portion. Fairmont struggled to produce early in the season, but the Golden Tornadoes’ bats are heating up down the stretch with a team average sitting at .305.
“We’ve got to score runs and we don’t do the best job at scoring runs sometimes,” Thorndyke said. “Our guys want to win it, but they know it’s going to be hard. You have to count on your pitching to get you through this tournament and playing two games in the last three days coming into (the weekend) hurts us a bit.”
Nearly perfect at Whiteville, Lovin isn’t expected during the first two rounds. He will be available for Tuesday’s final should Fairmont advance according to Thorndyke.
Hodges is taking a similar approach with Evan Odum, a sophomore whose had a hand in both of Lumberton’s wins over Pinecrest and Richmond this season. Teammates Daniel Oxendine and Sampson each have a shot at matching Lumberton’s Mack Read as the only two-time Slugfest most valuable players.
The plan as of now is to keep all three off the mound Saturday.
“If we don’t have have three fresh arms over those last two games, it’s going to be difficult to win this thing,” Hodges said. “Of course we’d like to get to play Fairmont (in the final), but who knows how this tournament will shake out. We’ve got to worry about getting there first.”
Fifth-seeded Red Springs will play West Bladen in the nightcap Monday at 7.
Reach Brad Crawford at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.
ROBESON COUNTY SLUGFEST SCHEDULE
Baseball (Today’s games at Tom Cope Park, Red Springs)
No. 3 Lumberton vs. No. 6 Freedom Christian, 10 a.m.
No. 2 Purnell Swett vs. No. 7 St. Pauls, 1 p.m.
No. 1 Fairmont vs. No. 8 South Robeson, 4
No. 4 West Bladen vs. No. 5 Red Springs, 7