With their red, white and blue uniforms and Captain America logo, the Garner Nationals have been superheroes on the American Legion Baseball scene over the past trio of campaigns — and don’t intend to let up any time soon.
The Nationals, coached by nine-year skipper Chris Cook, have made three consecutive State Championship Tournament appearances, and have won or shared the Area I West crown in each of those seasons.
“I guess we have good recruiting,’’ said Cook, a teacher at North Garner Middle School. “We have word of mouth among the players and have a good thing going right now. Winning helps. These kids all want to play for a winning team.”
The Nationals are loaded once again with a roster that features 10 players who have either signed to play in college or have just completed their freshman seasons on the next level.
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Heading that list is leadoff master Cole Hinnant, a Clayton High School alum who double dipped in the outfield and on the mound this spring at Francis Marion University in South Carolina.
Through two games, Hinnant, in his second summer with the Nats, has three home runs while helping his squad to a perfect start. He came one triple short of the cycle — and also pitched the ninth inning -- during Tuesday’s 12-8 road decision against Wayne County Post 11 at Southern Wayne High School.
“You can see the bat speed difference Cole has (as compared to last year),’’ Cook said. “He had an opportunity to play in the (wooden-bat) Coastal Plain League this summer, but they wanted him primarily as a pitcher. He came back to us because he wanted to get some at-bats.’’
Hinnant talked over his summer options with his parents before opting to return to the Nationals, where he feels comfortable and surrounded by long-time friends and teammates.
“It was important for me to be able to both hit and pitch,’’ Hinnant said. “It’s nice to come back home. I know everybody, and I have played with these guys. We have a lot of chemistry on this team. When you play in college, it’s a higher level of competition. I feel relaxed here and an trying to transfer what I learned in college and bring it to this team.”
Garner’s other current collegiate player list includes Diego Guerrero, a shortstop who redshirted this season at Garder-Webb. Guerrero, a former prep standout at Middle Creek, is a slick-fielding shortstop who teams with University of Richmond commit Robbie Frongello (also from Middle Creek) to form a dynamic double-play combination. The sidewinding Frongello will also see duty in the Nationals’ deep bullpen.
The talent doesn’t stop there for Garner, which returns several players from its 2015 group. Middle-of-the-lineup bashers Trevor Heasley and Brandon Stephens are UNC-Greensboro signees, and Stephens is also expected to be one of the aces of the Nationals’ pitching staff.
University of South Carolina-Upstate signee Drake Harris will also bring a top-level bat to Garner’s lineup, but he hasn’t played yet this summer due to a mission trip. The versatile Harris, the son of former Major League pitcher Greg Harris, attended North Raleigh Christian Academy and can play several positions on the field, including pitcher.
“We have fun and just concentrate on playing hard,” Heasley said. “That’s where it is kind of different from high school. We want to have a good time. But we also push each other. Since we are both going to UNC-G, me and Brandon kind of drive each other. We are all friends. Nobody gets on somebody if they don’t have a good game, but it helps knowing that we have so many good players. It makes you want to do well.”
The Nationals will split their home games this summer between Holly Springs High School and the North Main Athletic Complex, also in Holly Springs. Garner’s home opener will be June 2 at 7 p.m. against Greensboro Post 53.
“When Drake returns, we are going to have eight college hitters in our lineup,” Cook said. “That is pretty good.”
The Nationals flashed their power by outlasting Wayne County on Tuesday. Hinnant’s leadoff solo shot put Garner ahead 5-4 in the top of the seventh, and Cook’s club pulled away with a seven-spot in the eighth that featured three-run blasts from Hinnant and Brandon Stephens.
Upcoming Nationals Schedule
Monday, May 30: at High Point Post 57 (Greensboro War Memorial Stadium), 4
Thursday, June 2: vs. Greensboro Post 53 (at Holly Springs High School), 7
Saturday, June 3: Kinston Post 43 Invitational Tournament at Grainger Stadium - vs. Pitt County Post 39, 2:15; - vs. Kinston Post 43, 6:45
Monday, June 6: vs. Durham Post 7 (at North Main Athletic Complex in Holly Springs), 7