Prep notebook | Carolina Forest, Conway gearing up for new format for region series

For The Sun NewsMarch 4, 2013 

Carolina Forest and Conway are about find out all about big-boy baseball.

The two area teams, part of the five-squad Region VI-AAAA, will be playing a 12-game region slate this season that for the most part packages games against region opponents into three-game series.

The change comes after coaches found too many problems with last year’s eight-game slate. Instead, the region has moved to a system that mimics that of the college and professional series. The new scheduling tactic begins Monday, when Conway heads to Carolina Forest. The teams will then play Wednesday at Conway before heading back to Carolina Forest on Friday.

It’s a strategy that both Tigers coach Anthony Carroll and his Panthers counterpart, Jack Jolly, believe will help better prepare region teams for the postseason.

“I think playing it this way, you’ll find out who your best team is, not just who your best pitcher is,” Carroll said. “[The eight-game slate] doesn’t really tell you who your best team is. Each team is going to see the other team’s No. 1 pitcher one time. It forces you to build depth. It will be a big help for everybody who makes the playoffs.”

The three-game series packaged the way they are should do just that.

For instance, last season, Conway’s Grant Holmes threw the majority of the Tigers’ games. With them being spread out to average one per week, Carroll could afford to hold his top arm for primarily region games.

The old way had other not-so-advantageous quirks, too. Carolina Forest opened the 2012 season with a region game. That loss to Sumter, the Panthers found out, also set the tone. Carolina Forest, which had entered the preseason with a top-five state ranking, missed the playoffs.

Conway’s fate wasn’t much better. The Tigers – also a top-five team entering the year – earned a playoff spot, only be eliminated after two games. On top of that, the region’s other two playoff teams (Sumter and West Florence) won just three postseason games between the two of them.

But that’s just the teams that made the playoffs.

For Carolina Forest, the opening loss meant the Panthers were already in a major hole.

“It buried us, and we didn’t have enough games to recover,” Jolly said. “[The new system] should determine the best team in the region. You can’t throw the same pitcher multiple games in the past. There were situations last year where the same team was able to throw the same pitcher for five or six of the region games. This evens that out.”

One of the caveats to the three-game sets, however, is spring break. Carolina Forest’s exception to the region series is against Sumter. The teams will play Wednesday, with the second and third games coming on March 25 and March 27, respectively.

Conway’s exception will be against South Florence. Those two teams will meet three straight days March 25-27, with the middle game being at Conway and the first and third taking place at South Florence.

The three-game series for Region VI-AAAA will continue this season and next.

IP Classic attracts the best again

The International Paper Baseball Classic has another strong field that will have college and professional scouts flocking to Georgetown this week.

The eight-team tournament pits some of the best teams from Class AAAA and AAA against each other, and seven of the eight teams were ranked among the top six in their respective class. That includes No. 1 Lexington, No. 4 Mauldin, No. 5 Conway and No. 6 Wando from Class AAAA and No. 2 Greenville, No. 3 A.C. Flora and No. 6 St. James in Class AAA.

In other words, a who’s who of high school teams from South Carolina.

“When we were given the invite this year, we jumped all over it,” St. James coach Robbie Centracchio said. “The level of play they have every year is the best teams. The number of scouts, it was like Tanner [English] getting in the cage in 2011. They’re evaluating certain kids, but they’re there to see everybody. As a coach, it was just neat.”

The Sharks may not have the talent level they did in 2011 when they won both the IP Classic and the Class AAA state title. Eight players from that team went on to play college ball. That included English, now a starter for South Carolina, and Gunnar Heidt, a starter at College of Charleston.

That won’t change the fact this year’s IP Classic could against determine front-runner status for this year’s state titles in the two biggest classes. Of the five Class AAA programs who have won IP, four went on to win the state championship the same year. Two Class AAAA programs – Lexington in 1999 and Lancaster in 1991 – have done the same, and the 2009 Wando team finished as the Class AAAA state runner up after winning the IP Classic.

“You’re coming down and you’re going to see four games that are fairly competitive every day,” Carroll said. “There will be a ton of top prospects. If you’re a scout, you can come for one day and see a bunch of kids. They’ve held to that, and I think it’s paid off really well for them.”

The IP Classic will begin Thursday, with first pitch between Lexington and Mauldin coming at 2 p.m. St. James and host school Georgetown will play at 4:15 p.m., with Conway-Wando to follow at 6:30. Greenville and A.C. Flora will play the opening-day nightcap.

Games will continue at 10:30 a.m. Friday morning, and the tournament championship will be played at 3 p.m. Sunday. All games will be played at Mike Johnson Park. For a complete schedule, visit www.ipclassic.com.

How the other half lives

Coaches in this area know they have been relatively spoiled when it comes to preseason practices.

They’ve found out this year how baseball programs in other parts of the state and country have dealt with weather issues. Grand Strand teams were relegated to gyms or batting cages for much of the time leading up to the start of the regular season because of colder temperatures and increased rain fall.

“What it helps you do, it helps you as a coach,” Myrtle Beach coach Tim Christy said. “You learn to be creative in your drill work, your fundamental work. You might be stealing bases in the second-floor hallway. You might be taking ground balls in the weight room. You learn to adapt to help your team the best you can.

“The mistake people make is they feel sorry for themselves.”

Christy, who formerly coached in Virginia, knew how to play the weather game before he moved to the beach. It was reiterated to him just how good he has it now this past weekend during his tournament. While playing host to the Baseball at the Beach, Christy was told by parents of Northwestern’s baseball team that the Rock Hill area was getting snow.

All of a sudden, rain and colder temperatures didn’t seem so bad.

That said, bad weather doesn’t do anyone any favors. Christy said that his defense is not up to its potential yet because the team hasn’t had enough time on the field to work on that aspect of the game.

Carroll, meanwhile, said Conway is struggling to prepare offensively. He is still looking for other players to complement seniors Jordan Gore and G.K. Young.

Those two teams are slated to meet Tuesday night at Myrtle Beach, and yes, early weather forecasts are calling for a strong chance of rain.

Carolinas Classic venue change

The site of the 2013 Carolinas All-Star Basketball Classic pitting the best senior players from South Carolina against their counterparts from North Carolina has changed to Myrtle Beach.

The 16th annual event was originally scheduled to be played at Socastee the weekend of March 22-23. However, parking at Socastee was believed to have been an issue, according to a release from the organization.

Last year, approximately 4,500 fans attended the Classic.

This year, the two-day event will begin on March 22 for the slam dunk and 3-point shooting contests. Those will begin at 7 p.m. that day at Myrtle Beach. Admission for the preliminary events is $5.

The next day, the Carolinas Classic girls game will tip off at 6:30 p.m., with the boys game to follow at 8:30 p.m.

One area player, North Myrtle Beach’s India Farmer, will be among the 40 players playing in their final high school contest.

Contact IAN GUERIN at ian@ianguerin.com.

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