While many baseball players are enjoying spring break this week — N.C. high schools’ version of the mid-season all-star break — local teams will be hard at work getting ready for the 17th annual Hilltop Invitational Tournament.
“You need to keep playing,” said East Chapel Hill coach Phil Woodell, one of the event’s founders along with Orange coach Dean Dease.
“The season is short enough as it is. You really can’t take a week off in the middle of the season without losing some rhythm.”
This year’s tournament includes defending state 4A champion West Forsyth, state 3A champion Hampstead Topsail, PAC-6 4A champion Riverside and Big Eight 3A champion Orange, as well as a return visit from the Tallmadge (Ohio) Blue Devils.
The tournament will be played Thursday, Friday and Saturday — weather permitting — at Cedar Ridge, Chapel Hill, East Chapel Hill and Orange High School.
“Weather permitting” is not just a boilerplate proviso.
In the past, the HIT featured a playoff system of 16 teams divided into two divisions, each heading into championship or consolation brackets. More than once, rain on Day 1 threw the brackets into chaos, forcing organizers to cobble together schedules than forced teams to double up on split shifts of games, morning and evening.
This year, the HIT will feature 14 teams, each playing a pre-set schedule that will give them three games in three days. The format still provides a tough test of a team’s stamina and its pitching staff.
That’s exactly what most teams are looking for.
“We’d like to think we do a pretty good job with this tournament,” Woodell said. “Some of these teams are coming back for the sixth or seventh year.”
Topsail and the Wake County Home School teams are two newcomers to the HIT, and both have reputations that proceed them.
Topsail’s Pirates went 21-8 last year in winning the NCHSAA 3A championship and is off to a 9-1 start this season.
The Pirates are batting .344 as a team, led by Danny Wilson (.464), Jake Maddole (.444), Sam Luchansky .424, and Clark Cota (.367). Wilson and Cota have hits for 22 extra bases in 10 games.
Wake County went 22-6 in 2014, finishing in first place in the North Carolina Home Educators baseball standings and is 8-2 so far this season..
Wake’s Warriors, with a team batting average of .324, include three players hitting better than .400 so far: Matthew Smyth (.444), Jonathan Gardner (.421), and Matt Langhans (.400). Righthander Ryan Gosney is 2-0 with an ERA of 0.00 in 13 innings pitched.
Facing teams like that will only make everyone better, Woodell said.
“Our best baseball is still ahead of us,” he said. “We’re going to use this tournament to help us define some roles on this team and help us to set our lineup a little better.”
HILLTOP INVITATIONAL TOURNAMENT
Thursday, April 2
At Cedar Ridge: Riverside vs. West Forsyth, 4 p.m. Wake County Home School vs. Cedar Ridge, 7 p.m.
At Chapel Hill HS: Jordan vs. Carrboro, 4 p.m. Burlington Williams vs. Chapel Hill, 7 p.m.
At East Chapel Hill: Tallmadge vs. East Chapel Hill, 4 p.m.
At Orange: Northern Durham vs. South Granville, 4 p.m. Hampstead Topsail vs. Orange, 7 p.m.
Friday, April 3
At Cedar Ridge: Burlington Williams vs. Carrboro, 4 p.m. Northern Durham vs. Cedar Ridge, 7 p.m.
At Chapel Hill HS: Riverside vs. Chapel Hill, 7 p.m.
At East Chapel Hill: Jordan vs. Wake County, 1 p.m. South Granville vs. East Chapel Hill, 4 p.m.
At Orange: West Forsyth vs. Hampstead Topsail, 4 p.m. Tallmadge vs. Orange, 7 p.m.
Saturday, April 4
At Cedar Ridge: Burlington Williams vs. Cedar Ridge, 1 p.m.
At Chapel Hill HS: Northern Durham vs. Carrboro, 1 p.m., Tallmadge vs. Chapel Hill, 4 p.m.
At East Chapel Hill: Hampstead Topsail vs. Riverside, 1 p.m. Wake County vs. East Chapel Hill, 4 p.m.
At Orange: South Granville vs. Jordan, 1 p.m. West Forsyth vs. Orange, 4 p.m.