American Legion Baseball in Garner has almost always been a winning proposition. That continued last year when the squad shifted from one led by members of American Legion Post 232 to an independently sponsored team.
The Nationals, sporting those easy to identify American flag-themed uniforms, made the state tournament for a second consecutive season. This year brings the same expectation, but with a new look.
The 2015 edition of the Nationals — which includes players from Clayton, Middle Creek, Green Hope and Midway high schools — has zero returnees from those state tournament-qualifying clubs, but veteran manager Chris Cook thinks he’s put together the team to make the kind of history the Nationals want to make.
The Nationals are attempting to become the first team to win three consecutive Area I championships in the past half-plus-century. (The last to achieve the feat was a team from Graham in the 1950s.)
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Garner will be tested long before that achievement comes, if it does. The Nationals face eight teams who were state tournament qualifiers in 2014. So if there’s a trip to Rowan County for the state championships in the future, Garner will have certainly earned it.
“It’s a tight 23-game schedule, but it’s a tough one,” Cook said. “We want to be challenged in and out of conference play.”
Garner will participate in two invitational events again this season. The first is the Randolph County Post 45 Invitational in Asheboro on May 30. In late June, the Nationals head to Florence, S.C. to take on three teams from South Carolina — Greenville Post 3, Sumter Post 15 and Greer Post 115 — in the Florence Invitational.
Garner will battle in a smaller Area I West Conference with Rocky Mount bowing out of the Legion ranks this season. Area I West includes Garner, Apex Post 124, Cary Post 67 and Raleigh Post 1.
There will be less travel on the Nationals’ docket this season. After playing every game on the road last season, Garner will play its home games at the brand new Holly Springs Park, which is also home to the Triangle’s new Coastal Plains League squad: the Holly Springs Salamanders.
Fans will see another patriotic-themed jersey as well: this one modeled after Captain America’s suit. (The jerseys have become hot items in the Comic Con-world of collecting Avengers and Captain America memorabilia and have sold for more than $300 through secondary markets.)
The Nationals will be a young group with 16 of the 20 players on the roster eligible to return for the 2016 season.
“We’re continuing the trend we’ve followed in the past two years,” said Garner manager Chris Cook. “We’re going to bullpen people to death. We feel like we’ll be defensively sound. This is a little bit different team than some in years’ past but we’re still going to rely on that bullpen.”
Cook, entering his eighth year of Legion managing, has a baker’s dozen of pitching arms available. He has no issues putting any of 13 players on the bump.
“I’d say we have crafty pitchers,” Cook said. “I don’t know if we’ll throw it by people consistently, but they’ll be able to get people out.”
The pitching corps will feature players from all four high schools: Troy Maslowski (Green Hope), Matt Duckworth (Green Hope), Michael Merryman (Green Hope), Sammy Chapman (Green Hope), Langdon Wilson (Middle Creek), Sammy Chapman (Middle Creek), Zeke Barefoot (Middle Creek), Cole Hinnant (Clayton), Mason Medlin (Clayton), Sully Keele (Clayton), Matthew Barefoot (Midway) and Ryan Lee (Midway).
Defensively, Garner will find its strength up the middle with a pair of Division I middle infielders (mainly Diego Guerrero at shortstop and Robbie Frongello at second) and a Division II centerfielder — Clayton’s Cole Hinnant.
Frongello, one of two rising high school juniors on the roster (along with teammate Jonathan D’Ercole), will fill the closer role for Garner, testing batters with his submariner delivery.
The Nationals’ lineup has four leadoff batters from area high schools. “So we’re going to run,” Cook added for emphasis.
And there are three No. 3 hole hitters in Garner’s lineup as well.
The normal lineup could be juggled a bit at the start of the season with Midway in the 2A high school playoffs and both Maslowski and Brian Martschenko (a catcher from Green Hope) on the mend with hand injuries.
Kyle Hawley of Midway will catch as well, while Clayton’s Brendan Alexyon fills a utility role. Trevor Heasley and Nathan Farakash of Middle Creek will primarily play the infield.
“We’ll try to score a run an inning, that’s always my goal,” Cook said. “It’s a recipe that’s very similar to the things we’ve done in the past. We’re not going to try to fix something that’s not a problem. We’re going to continue to be who we are.”
Middle Creek/Gardner-Webb University
Green Hope/College of William & Mary
Green Hope/University of Richmond
Green Hope/Barton College
INF, OF, P
Clayton/Wake Tech Community College
Clayton/Francis Marion University
Green Hope/Louisburg College
Middle Creek/Western Carolina University
Green Hope/Brevard College