As the American Legion Area II regular season ends, the Hope Mills Boosters are again in contention for a trip to the state tournament, which will be held at Pitt Community College this year, July 20-25.
Through a June 28 win over Jacksonville, Hope Mills still held a piece of first place with an 11-1 Area II record, 12-3 overall. Their main rival, also with a single league defeat, is perennial power Wilmington Post 10.
At this writing, Hope Mills had road games left with Wilmington and Wallace, which is also in the title picture, and a home doubleheader with Whiteville. Whiteville was knocked out of the regular-season title picture when it forfeited multiple wins for using an ineligible player. Morehead City announced it won’t take part in this year’s playoffs.
Hope Mills rolled to an 8-0 start before facing strong opposition in a recent tournament in Florence, S.C. They took a five-inning 10-0 loss to Garner and lost a slugfest with defending state and regional American Legion champion Rowan County, 11-9.
“We didn’t see our real good competition until after that eighth game,’’ said Hope Mills coach Mark Kahlenberg. “Garner was a solid team with good pitching and they hit the ball well against us.’’
Pitching was Hope Mills’ biggest problem in the loss to Rowan County. “I think we had 11 or 12 walks against them,’’ Kahlenberg said.
Walks have hurt Hope Mills all season, Kahlenberg said. In the Florence tournament they walked 30 in three games. For the season the total is 67 in 15.
“That’s 4.5 per game,’’ he said. “We’d like to get that number down to maybe one or two free passes a night. We’d prefer none, but one or two a game you can deal with.’’
The 18-man roster for Hope Mills includes players from South View, Jack Britt and Purnell Swett.
Among the better county pitchers for the team are Andrew Sabalboro of South View and James Howell, D.J. Bishop and Zach Knapp of Jack Britt. Howell and Sabalboro both have earned run averages of zero. Bishop has a win and has allowed only two hits. Knapp is 2-0 with 18 strikeouts in 11.2 innings.
Knapp is among the offensive leaders with a .367 average including three home runs and eight RBIs. “He’s consistently been in the 5-6 slot in the order,’’ Kahlenberg said.
If Hope Mills can finish either first or second in the final Area II standings, it will get a first-round bye for the state playoffs, which begin July 7.
The teams that don’t get byes, Nos. 3-6, will match up in best-of-three series. The winners of those will face the top two teams in another best-of-three round. The top-seeded team gets the lowest-seeded survivor of the first round.
The two teams that win in the second round are automatically guaranteed berths in the state tournament. The coaches of those teams will then decide if they’ll have a one-game playoff or a series to determine which team is No. 1 seed from Area II for the state tournament.
Kahlenberg would like to get one of the byes but said it won’t be the end of the season if they don’t. “We feel confident if we don’t have that first-round bye we’re going to have enough pitching and we hit the ball well enough that we’re going to make it to the second round at least,’’ he said.
“Maybe we can get in a couple of practices and stay fresh for that second-round matchup, whoever it may be.’’
EDITOR’S NOTE: The critical Friday, June 30th, Hope Mills at Wilmington Post 10 game was postponed by rain. This put the remaining Hope Mills regular-season schedule in jeopardy as both teams were to end the regular schedule on July 3 and open the playoffs July 7.
PHOTO: Mark Kahlenberg & Zach Knapp