When it comes to summer baseball traditions, there’s none older or with stronger local ties in Fayetteville and Cumberland County than American Legion baseball.
State American Legion Hall of Fame coach Doug Watts has been a part of the tradition stretching back over 50 years. He’s stepped aside from active coaching, but is still involved and was on the sidelines working hard last week when the Hope Mills Boosters team convened for its first practice session of the season at South View High School.
Watts is officially listed as the athletic officer for the Boosters, but he’s turned head coaching duties over to Mark Kahlenberg, who has a staff that includes Randy Nalls, Cecil Combs and former Boosters player Logan Haines.
They will have played their season opener at Wallace on May 22 by the time this story runs, but they start the year with a five-game road swing and don’t play their first home contest at South View until June 7.
As always, there are some changes for the Boosters this season, the biggest being they have dropped Terry Sanford as one of the schools they draw players from and added Pine Forest.
Returning to the fold are players from Jack Britt, South View and Purnell Swett.
Britt and Swett both had great years, Britt sharing the Mid-South 4-A regular-season title with Cape Fear and Swett winning the Southeastern 4-A regular-season championship.
A handful of players is back from 2016, including D.J. Bishop of Jack Britt along with Landon Harris and Andrew Sabalboro of South View.
Kahlenberg was excited about a turnout of over 20 players at the first practice. “We have 13 pitchers who are also listed as position players,’’ Kahlenberg said. “Having 13 pitchers is very important. We’ve never had 13 to start the season.’’
One of those pitchers is Jacob Austin from Pine Forest, son of Methodist University baseball coach Tom Austin. Austin’s not sure if he’ll be just a pitcher or a daily position player, but he’s excited about the opportunity.
“Every team we play will have college-level pitching,’’ Austin said of the Legion schedule. “There are no patsies.’’
He hopes to work on command of his curveball during the summer. “It’s been in and out the whole year,’’ he said.
Two players from Jack Britt Kahlenberg is counting on are Zachary Knapp and Gavin Wheeler. Knapp, like Austin, is also a pitcher.
“It gives me the opportunity to work on my skills and play with a bunch of guys I know are the best of the best,’’ Knapp said. “I just want to keep getting better in every aspect of the game.’’
Here is this year’s Hope Mills Boosters schedule. Home games are at South View High School. All games begin at 7 p.m. unless otherwise noted:
May 22 – at Wallace; 26 – at Wilmington Post 545; 29 – at Wilmington Post 10.
June 2 – at Whiteville (West Columbus High School); 4 – at Jacksonville (doubleheader, 3 p.m.); 7 – at Wallace; 14 – at Wilmington Post 10; 17 – Wilmington Post 545 (doubleheader, 3 p.m.); 21 – Jacksonville; 23 – at Wallace; 25 – Morehead City (doubleheader, 2 p.m.); 30 – at Wilmington Post 10
July 1 – Whiteville (doubleheader, 3 p.m.); 2 – at Morehead City (2 p.m.); 5 – State playoffs open. 26 – State final 8, at Pitt Community College, Greenville.