With six starters back from a unit that tied for the regular-season championship last year, Mount Pleasant's baseball team is considered to be a favorite to top the South Piedmont 3A Conference again this season.
But coach Bryan Tyson says one thing will keep the rest of the league at least in the running for a title: pitching.
Several members of the eight-team conference have at least one superb stopper on the mound, including Northwest Cabarrus, which was Mount Pleasant's co-champ in the regular season and won the league tournament.
The Tigers (17-10 overall, 11-3 in the conference in 2010) are led by the versatile Grayson Atwood, who can start at any of four positions. The UNC Chapel Hill recruit is one of Mount Pleasant's top two arms and, when not pitching, will be in the lineup at either first base, third base or left field, depending on his teammates' production at those positions.
Atwood and fellow righty all-conference pitcher Anthony Allende will platoon at first base, along with husky sophomore Josh Faile. Faile, freshman lefty Ryan Ross and sophomore Nick Coble, who's also an outfield prospect, round out the pitching staff.
Three-year starter Wesley Hammill is a hustling catcher with one of the league's best arms. Solidifying the outfield are returning starter A.J. James and fellow seniors Cody Crowell and Chet Currie.
Another all-SPC selection and Appalachian State commitment, Brandon Burris, steadies the infield at shortstop. Slick-fielding junior Jake Kimble started much of last season at second base. Sam Rape, up from the junior varsity, will play a lot at third.
More superb pitching
One of the superb Cabarrus County pitchers capable of shutting down Mount Pleasant's bats is Northwest Cabarrus lefthander Rob Bain, a Davidson College signee. With an 8-3 record, the SPC Pitcher of the Year helped pitch the Trojans (21-10, 11-3) into the fourth round of the state playoffs in 2010.
Junior shortstop Corey Seager has already committed to South Carolina, the 2010 NCAA champion. Seager hit well over .400 with eight homers last year and is a Louisville Slugger pre-season all-America.
Providing run support for Bain and junior Weston Smith - who was 4-1 as a hard-throwing righthander last year - will be another UNC commitment, infielder Tanner Bigham (.410, 3 HR), and defensive outfielder William Miller (a Wingate signee), who hit .363 in the leadoff spot.
Two-time all-SPC pitcher/outfielder Zach Andrews (.423 batting average, 18 steals, 1.83 ERA) helped Hickory Ridge (13-12, 9-5) to a postseason berth in 2010. Seniors Jarrod Brown (outfield, .375, 21 steals, 4 HR) and Armando Castaneda (catcher, .400, 5 HR) also return.
Concord (14-12, 8-6) is coming off its first playoff appearance in several years but will have a young team. Senior Corey Smith (over .400, 6 HR) is a returning all-SPC catcher, and junior righthander Ryan Burris will be the No. 1 starting pitcher.
Four-year starter Dylan May (P/OF) leads an athletic bunch at Kannapolis Brown (12-15, 7-7). Fellow seniors Zach Jones and Justin Kidd will provide plenty of support. Jones is another pitcher/outfielder who bats leadoff and Kidd will bat behind him while playing mostly second base.
Clemson recruit and all-conference junior Brody Koerner (83 K, 50 IP) leads Concord Robinson's (11-15, 5-10) pitching rotation, which will include seniors Logan Austin (P/OF, .351 avg.) and Dillon Ashburn (1B/P, .3423, 19 RBI). Shawn Webber is a four-year starter at second base, and senior Blaine Hill (.400) is moving from shortstop to catcher.
Leading hitter Ryan Yoder (.368, 23 RBI) returns behind the plate for Central Cabarrus (8-16, 4-10). Senior shortstop Brandon Yoder played his best against the SPC last year (.413, 6 HR). Junior Michael Hartsell, who can play every infield position, and sophomore Garrett Freeze figure to be the Vikings' top two pitchers.
In the North Piedmont Conference, South Rowan and China Grove Carson (20-8) will chase defending 3A state champion East Rowan. The Mustangs' path to the state semifinal went strictly through the South Piedmont Conference as they knocked Concord, Hickory Ridge, Mount Pleasant and Northwest Cabarrus out of the state playoffs.
Returning for South Rowan (16-10) are Tyler Kowalczyk, an all-conference senior centerfielder with great speed and instincts, versatile senior infielder Jacob Dietz, and Eric Tyler, a hard-swinging sophomore catcher.
Added depth may help Cannon School (4-17, 0-12) in its second season in the Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association. Pitcher/shortstop Justin Redfern (junior, .453 avg., 10 RBI), strong-armed pitcher/infielder Bradley Barnhart (sophomore, .333), catcher Connor Lippincott (junior, .345), and outfielder Scott Krussell (junior, .333), will set good examples for the newcomers.
All-Metrolina Athletic Conference players Stephen Gilmore (senior, P/CF, .422 avg., 7-4 record, 2.33 ERA, committed to Gardner-Webb) and Zac Cantador (senior infielder, .402 avg.) lead First Assembly. Catcher Gabe Sites led the Eagles in RBI last year, and fellow junior Jonathan Martin hit .365 as a pitcher/first baseman.