Entering this year, St. James was the only Horry County baseball program to have ever won a state championship, something the young school did in 2011 behind a stacked lineup full of future college and professional players.
What coach Robbie Centracchio wants everyone to know as his Sharks prepare for another trip to the final series of the year is that this year’s team may be a completely different list of players, but it holds the same roster-wide goal.
“This group, like the 2011 group, put team and winning over everything else,” Centracchio said in advance of his squad’s Class AAA championship series against Belton-Honea Path. “They are a close group that believe in and buys into what St James baseball does best. They are all in, compete for seven-plus innings and do not let mistakes bring them down. They believe in the end result and each other.”
If there is another part of the St. James squads separated by five years that seems awfully familiar, it is what both needed to do in order to reach the finals: win close games.
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In 2011, the Sharks won five one- or two-run games (and then a sixth to clinch the championship over Union County). This spring, there have been four, including all three games in the Lower State tournament that required walk-off at-bats in the bottom of the final inning.
As a team and coaching staff, we honestly don’t look at or address whether or not we are favorites. We definitely spend a lot of time researching opponents and coming up with a game plan to approach the game and individual players. Our players do not need hype or underdog speeches to be ready to play. We believe we are right where we are supposed to be and ready for the next challenge.
St. James baseball coach Robbie Centracchio
The biggest difference from then to now, however, may be the perception of the two teams still playing. While St. James and Union County were considered a little more evenly matched, Belton-Honea Path (BHP) has been on a two-year long roll and predicted by many to be playing this week as far back as last year – when it earned the 2015 state championship.
The Bears spent nearly all of the 2016 season as the No. 1 team in the state Baseball Coaches Association Class AAA rankings, and have piled up 26 wins. They won the prestigious S.C. Diamond Invitational, in the process beating J.L. Mann and Summerville – the two teams playing for the Class AAAA title this week.
Basically, BHP is loaded.
It may the first time all postseason St. James is considered the underdog, although Centracchio said that is of little concern.
“As a team and coaching staff, we honestly don’t look at or address whether or not we are favorites,” he said. “We definitely spend a lot of time researching opponents and coming up with a game plan to approach the game and individual players. Our players do not need hype or underdog speeches to be ready to play. We believe we are right where we are supposed to be and ready for the next challenge.”
The biggest one of the year begins Thursday, with the ultimate payoff on the line.
Lake Morris covers Anderson-area high schools for the Independent-Mail newspaper, and has witnessed firsthand the Belton-Honea Path baseball team’s attempt to defend its state championship from last spring.
He took some time to answer a few questions that could shed light on the team facing St. James for the 2016 Class AAA championship.
TSN: BHP was the defending state champs, so everyone figured they would be good. But what has been the biggest reason for the Bears making it back to the state title?
LM: To me, it has been how steady they play. They had a hiccup in region play, but they have never really gotten too high or too low. Even after losing the first game of Upper State to Wren, I did not sense any panic in their dugout. Also, they have good pitching in Blake Holliday, a Clemson signee, and Austin Todd, a Citadel signee. Those two also provide leadership, along with catcher, and Coastal Carolina signee, Dax Roper and centerfielder Chase Coker. Lastly, they play clean. They just don’t make that many errors.
TSN: Some teams are branded as doing one thing better than anyone else. What would that be for Steve Williams’ team? Is it fair to say BHP can’t be typecast into just one?
LM: To me it is playing tough defense and hitting line drives on offense. This season I have not seen a team hit timely line drives consistently like they do. They are good at putting defenses into alignments (double play, tight corners, pulled in, etc.) and then putting the ball in play where the opponent’s guy is not.
TSN: Back on April 4, the Bears briefly lost their No. 1 state ranking despite coming off a championship in the Diamond Invitational. How much do you think that served as a motivational push for arguably the most talented team in the division?
LM: Talking to them, it did not seem to bother them. I do know the next few games out they played like a team that had something stolen from them.
TSN: Speaking of that talent, outside of Clemson signee Blake Holliday, who are the other Bears St. James fans should keep an eye on in the next few days?
LM: The other big ones are Dax Roper and Austin Todd, those are the big bats. Two players that have gone under the radar a little are Chase Coker and Austin Hughes. Can’t tell you how many diving catches Coker has made in center, and Hughes came in having to replace Jake Crawford, who is at Furman now.
TSN: Was there any point during this postseason when it didn’t feel like BHP would be playing in this championship series?
LM: During the regular season, no. The two games it felt in doubt were a 1-0 game against Camden where BHP was no-hit until Blake Holliday hit a two-out walk-off home run to win it in the seventh, and a little after the first game in the Upper State title series with Wren. This team has played very even keel through the year, and returning a large portion of last year’s state title team has helped with that mentality.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Class AAA state baseball finals
WHO: St. James (23-7) vs. Belton-Honea Path (26-4)
WHERE: Murrells Inlet (6 p.m., Thursday), Honea Path (6 p.m. Saturday), Columbia (if necessary; 6 p.m., Monday)
TICKETS: $6, only SCHSL passes accepted
ABOUT: St. James will be going after its second state title in the school’s brief history. Belton-Honea Path will be going after its fifth overall and third in the last seven years. Both teams won their regular-season region titles and swept through the district tournaments. BHP needed an extra game to top Wren in the Upper State finals, while St. James defeated Airport in 12 innings Monday to claim the Lower State championship.