For all the talk of Carolina Forest baseball, the No. 1 ranking in Class AAAA and all those available pitching arms, Wednesday was the team’s first chance to start proving it could mean something truly special.
The Panthers may not have aced the first postseason test. But they certainly passed.
Carolina Forest defeated Spring Valley 5-3 at home to open the playoffs, a crucial step in not only staying in the winner’s bracket of the district field, but also one that may keep things rolling in the right direction while everything on paper says the Panthers are the team to beat.
Coach Jack Jolly elected to go with junior Bryar Johnson against the Vikings. The Coastal Carolina verbal commitment has a bright future ahead of him, but he’s also had to wait his turn behind the team’s top two starters, Jakob Frishmuth and Matt Weatherwax, a pair of hurlers who started all but one of the 10 region contests.
“I think we’re learning that as the year goes on” center fielder Hunter Baiden said of the team’s seemingly endless supply of pitchers. “We still have Weatherwax, Fish. I don’t know if we’re saving them, but we’ve still got them for [the rest of] the district playoffs.”
Said Jolly: “I don’t think it’s a secret any more. We just felt that going with Bryar was the best match-up for us with the teams we might be playing. He wasn’t at his best – as good as he’s been at other times in the year – but he did enough to keep us in the game and give us a chance to win.”
Johnson, who is one of a select number of pitchers statewide to hit 90 miles per hour on a radar gun in the last year, did exactly what Jolly hoped he could. In six innings, he allowed only four hits and two runs. One of those came on a throwing error and another came after he threw a wild pitch.
By the time he took the mound in the second inning, though, the offense had already staked him to a three-run lead. Frishmuth started things off with an RBI groundout and then Baiden sent a Mark Duroux pitch over the left-field wall for a two-run homer.
Spring Valley threatened in the top of the seventh with the bases loaded, but Patrick Orlando, the Panthers’ dedicated closer, got a strikeout to end the game and send Carolina Forest to a second-round game against Stratford, also to be played at home.
You’re in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter what their seed is or what their regular-season record was. They’re ready to play. So they’re all going to be tough. Whether it’s 5-3 or 10-0, it doesn’t matter. We’ll take the win and move on to the next round.
Carolina Forest baseball coach Jack Jolly
The win Wednesday was a better result than the one last week that followed Carolina Forest returning to the top spot in the South Carolina Baseball Coaches Association rankings. Last Tuesday, hours after returning to the top of the polls, the Panthers fell to Socastee. The loss only delayed the Region VI-AAAA title, but it was a concern for Jolly so close to the postseason.
Against Spring Valley, Carolina Forest looked much like the team it did while piling up 18 wins during the regular season, even though it also showed just how little can be taken for granted.
“You’re in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter what their seed is or what their regular-season record was. They’re ready to play,” Jolly said. “So they’re all going to be tough. Whether it’s 5-3 or 10-0, it doesn’t matter. We’ll take the win and move on to the next round.”
Two of the last three Class AAAA teams to enter the postseason No. 1 have gone on to win the title – Summerville falling in the district tournament a year ago while Sumter (2014) and Lexington (2013) went on to win it all.
With Stratford on deck, Jolly’s team can keep itself in prime position toward achieving that goal with another win. With a victory over the Knights, Carolina Forest will then play host to the remaining district squad on Wednesday, needing to win one out of a possible two games to move on to a second consecutive Lower State tournament.
“Any time you win and can advance on, you’ve got to feel better about it,” Jolly said. “I like where we are.”
▪ W: Bryar Johnson L: Mark Duroux S: Patrick Orlando Top hitters: SV: Hayden Goff 1-3, BB, Run; Duroux 3-3, BB, Run; Da Da Sumpter 1-3, BB, Run. CF: Joey Lewandowski 1-3, BB, RBI, Run; Hunter Baiden 2-3, HR, 2 RBI, SB; Caleb Lindaberry 1-2, BB, Run..
▪ Records: Spring Valley 10-13; Carolina Forest 19-5.