High school baseball season kicks off Wednesday, and as usual, Union County baseball is expected to be strong.
Throughout the week, the Observer is previewing high school baseball in each of the counties it covers.
Today, correspondent Jay Edwards takes a look at Union.
Teams to Watch
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Marvin Ridge: Coach Mark Mennitt has guided the Mavericks to 84 wins in the last three seasons (28 victories per season), winning the 2015 and 2016 3A state championships. Last year, Marvin Ridge (25-7) lost in the 3A West Regional finals and returns four starters from that team. This year, seniors Matthew Helms and Stephen Ridge look to help the 2018 Mavericks’ live up to their winning standards. Expect Marvin Ridge to contend again in the Southern Carolinas’ conference and be a major player deep into the 3A playoffs.
Sun Valley: Coach Jared Barwick returns an experienced and talented team in Year 2 of his Sun Valley tenure. Six starters are back in the lineup from a team that won 14 games, matching the win total of the three previous seasons combined (2014-2016). The Spartans will boast an experienced team with veterans Zack Budzik, Josh Swartz, Caleb Barwick, Sam Howell and Caleb Bruce -- all hungry to make their last season in a Sun Valley uniform one to remember with a SCC title and a postseason run.
Weddington: The Warriors also return a veteran club for Coach Travis Poole, who has proven his teams can win consistently as Weddington averages 21 victories per season over the last six years. This year, Poole will seniors Harry Bernard, Matt Burke, Ryan Healy and Anthony Hennings to help contend in the SCC and into the playoffs.
Porter Ridge: The Pirates will look to a veteran pitching staff, headlined by junior Brennan Malone (throws 94 miles per hour mph) and seniors, Chris Gill and Price Hargett, to help contend in the ultra-competitive, Southwestern 4A (SW4A) conference that gets even tougher with Hickory Ridge joining the league. Coach Trey Staviski and company have the talent to be in the thick of the SW4A race and a dangerous playoff matchup with their pitching talent.
Parkwood: The Rebels have seven starters back, but must make the move into the SCC and class 3A this season. Coach Rocky Richar will need players like seniors Jordan Harley, Grant Bartlett and Mason Stickney and juniors, Jesse Harkey, to step up their games if Parkwood is going to be a factor in the SCC and beyond in the 3A state playoffs.
Metrolina Christian: Coach Darren Adams and his Warriors’ program have proven they can win consistently, averaging 18 victories per season over the past four years. This season, Metrolina Christian will look to seniors Noah Jordan and Drew Hall as well as junior Wes Bowlin to help compete in a tough Metrolina Athletic Conference (MAC) and into the postseason.
Players to Watch
Brennan Malone, Porter Ridge, Jr.: University of North Carolina commit, reigning Southwestern 4A pitcher of the year is the No. 1 right-handed pitcher in the country in the class of 2019, according to Perfect Game USA. The Pirates’ standout, who throws a 94 mile-per-hour fastball, looks to help Porter Ridge contend in a tough league and will help make his team a difficult playoff matchup.
Matthew Helms, Marvin Ridge, Sr.: Mavericks’ all-SCC senior now takes on a lead role after going 5-1 (1.00 ERA) on the mound last season. Helms, who can throw upper 80s, is a Wingate and Furman University recruit, according to Coach Mennitt.
Zack Budzik/Josh Swartz, Sun Valley, Sr. (both): Spartans’ standouts are eager to help Sun Valley prove it can contend in the SCC and more into the postseason. Budzik (UNC Greensboro signee) will power the offense (.347, 13 stolen bases last year) while Swartz (Western Carolina signee) will be expected to provide strong hitting (.372 last year) and pitching (91 mph) on a team loaded with strong arms.
Matt Burke, Weddington, Sr.: Warriors’ senior standout will need to be even more productive (.303, 19 runs, five doubles, 16 stolen bases) for Weddington to be a factor in the SCC and into the postseason.
Jesse Harkey, Parkwood, Jr.: Charlotte 49ers’ commit can do it all for Parkwood and looking to have another big season at the plate (.328, four home runs last year) and on the mound (throws 89 mph).
Ben Gilks, Cuthbertson, Sr.: Senior catcher will need to play a big role behind the plate and at it (.310, two home runs last year) to help a young, Cavaliers team compete in the Southern Carolinas conference.
Logan Mullis, Piedmont, Sr.: Piedmont senior looks to play lead role at the plate (.273 last year) and on the mound (2.90 ERA) again in 2018.
Noah Jordan, Metrolina Christian, Sr.: Warriors’ standout will be big at the plate (.306 last season), on the bases (18 stolen bases last year) and on the mound (2-0 pitching in 2017) again this season.
Brandon Little, Central Academy, Jr.: 6-foot-6 right-hander can be an imposing figure on the mound (4-1, 2.18 ERA, 53 strikeouts), and at the plate (.243, two home runs last year). A Division I recruit, according to Central Academy coach Aaron Hammers.
Can’t Miss Games
Ardrey Kell at Marvin Ridge, March 7: Traditional state powers, regional rivals meet in week two of the regular season in one of the area’s most intriguing non-conference battles every year, pitting two of the states’ best coaches in Ardrey Kell’s Hal Bagwell and Marvin Ridge’s Mark Mennitt.
Sun Valley vs. Porter Ridge, April 2 at Jack Sink Tournament at East Mecklenburg: Arch rivals get a chance to tangle at the Jack Sink Tournament opener for both teams, where bragging rights will also be on the line.
Weddington at Marvin Ridge, April 13: There’s always a lot at stake when these Union County conference rivals meet for what always feels like league supremacy and neighborhood bragging rights to playoff position. And this year will be no different. Marvin Ridge also hosts Weddington April 10 and travels to Weddington April 11 in the same series.
Marvin Ridge at Sun Valley, April 20: Marvin Ridge takes on another major Union County rival in the very next series, where the SCC title could be at stake on with one week to play in the regular season. Marvin Ridge also plays at Sun Valley April 17, while hosting the Spartans April 18, in the three-game set.
Cuthbertson at Parkwood, April 20: The final game of this three-game series will likely be critical to both squads position in the SCC standings and for the playoff picture.
Porter Ridge at Myers Park, April 24; Porter Ridge at Hickory Ridge, April 27: If Porter Ridge is going to contend for a Southwestern 4A conference title, they will have to earn it, as their chances will likely come down to winning these two road games in the final week of the regular season.
Charlotte Catholic at Marvin Ridge, April 27: The Mavericks’ regular season finale against the Cougars should also have major SCC title, postseason implications in the final game of a three-game series.
▪ Sam Howell, Sun Valley junior: will be a key player for the Spartans’ baseball team as he hit .337 at the plate, boasted an 0.58 ERA on the mound last year and can throw 92 mph, according to Coach Barwick. But, the 6-foot-1 senior is also one of top quarterbacks in the country with offers from multiple schools, including Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and more.
▪ Cuthbertson coach Hank Harris served as former Cavaliers’ baseball coach Travis Little’s assistan for the first four years of the school and program (2009-2013). Now, Harris returns to Cuthbertson to lead a team that will have to reload quickly with only two starters back from a 22-win team (3A state quarterfinalist). Harris will look to senior catcher, Ben Gilks and junior shortstop, Aly Dawood, to play lead roles as they battle to get back into playoff position in the SCC.
▪ Metrolina Christian senior outfielder/pitcher, Drew Tucker, an Ardrey Kell transfer, should have a big impact in the Warriors’ lineup, according to Coach Darren Adams.
▪ Forest Hills has struggled in recent years with their last winning season coming in 2012. But Yellow Jackets’ Coach Stewart Redding believes they can be a factor in Rocky River conference this year and will look to senior Jacob Campbell, and sophomore Jalen Huntley, to lead the way.
Metrolina Athletic Conference (MAC)
- 1. SouthLake Christian; 2. Westminster Catawba; 3. Metrolina Christian; 4. Northside Christian; 5. Gaston Christian; 6. Gaston Day; 7. Hickory Grove; 8. Concord First Assembly.
Piedmont Athletic Conference 7 (PAC 7) 1A Conference
- 1. Pine Lake Prep; 2. Queens Grant; 3. Union Academy; 4. Community School of Davidson; 5. Mountain Island Charter; 6. Bradford Prep; 7. Carolina International.
Rocky River Conference
- 1. Mount Pleasant; 2. West Stanly; 3. Anson County; 4. East Montgomery; 5. Forest Hills; 6. Central Academy.
Southern Carolinas’ Conference
- 1. Sun Valley; 2. Marvin Ridge; 3. Weddington; 4. Cuthbertson; 5. Piedmont; 6. Parkwood; 7. Charlotte Catholic.
Southwestern 4A Conference
- 1. Myers Park; 2. East Mecklenburg; 3. Hickory Ridge; 4. Independence; 5. Butler; 6. Porter Ridge; 7. Rocky River; 8. Garinger.