Of the four remaining teams in the N.C. 4A Western playoff bracket, three are nationally ranked: North Davidson is No. 7 in MaxPreps’ national poll. South Caldwell is 12th and Providence 14th.
That leaves unranked Butler (23-6) as a big underdog, which suits head coach Rick Sambrotto just fine. Sambrotto’s Bulldogs have won seven straight games, including the Southwestern 4A tournament championship, and have beaten the No. 2 4A Western playoff seed (Skyland Roberson) and the No. 7 seed (Richmond Senior) in its past two games.
Next up is No. 3 seed North Davidson (25-1). Butler will visit North Davidson in a 7 p.m. regional semifinal Friday. The other regional semi sends Providence (27-1) to South Caldwell (29-1).
“We don’t get a whole lot of attention,” Sambrotto said. Mecklenburg County powers “Providence and Ardrey Kell have a few more college guys than we do usually. But I don’t say a whole lot about it. Our players kind of internalize it. But I always try to point out to them the guys on the team that are college guys, and maybe that focuses them in a little bit. They like competition.”
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Butler lost to Providence in the N.C. 4A Western Regional championship last season, one of the state’s final four teams. Two seniors graduated. Seven starters returned and this year Butler has nine seniors. Senior Dean Looney hits .523 with 11 home runs. Junior Tate Pennington, senior Kobe Phillips and sophomore Johnny Hummel all have more than 20 RBIs.
Sambrotto admits he had big expectations for this year’s team.
“I knew we had most of our pitching back, which we were excited about and counting on,” he said. “We were still good offensively, but not sure if we were quite as good (as 2015).”
Butler finished second to Independence in the Southwestern 4A regular-season race, won the conference tournament and found some magic in the playoffs.
Butler beat Scotland County 5-4 in the first round and beat Roberson 13-7 in the second. In the third round, at Richmond Senior, Butler lost an early 2-0 lead and was in the second extra inning, when Looney hit a home run in the top of the ninth before Phillips came in as a closer and finished off a 3-2 win.
Sambrotto expects another close game Friday at North Davidson.
“I’ve been told this, and they are the best hitting team (from all nine hitters) I think,” he said. “They’ve got more than a couple D1 guys in the lineup. Their pitching is strong and they have seven seniors who start. They’re always good.”
But in a season when he thought his team might have a chance at a state championship appearance, Butler is in good position. There are eight teams remaining in the 4A playoffs in North Carolina, and two from Mecklenburg County.
The Bulldogs are right where they want to be.
“I love it when you’re one of the last few teams in Mecklenburg County to play,” Sambrotto said. “It’s quite an accomplishment for teams to do that here, because the level is so high.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr