Three Blythewood pitchers combined on a one-hit shutout as the Bengals continued their hot early-season play with a 2-0 win over Spring Valley in the Region 4-4A and regular season opener for both clubs.
Blythewood went 11-1 on the way to winning the conference pennant by one game over the Vikings last spring, and the Richland 2 school district rivals are expected to be the top contenders for the prize again this time around.
Thomas Bessinger started and went four innings to pick up the win before giving way to southpaw Avery Bone and closer Andrew Beckwith. Bessinger allowed the one SV hit of the game in the second inning – an infield safety by catcher Mitchell Griffin – and had eight strikeouts and two walks.
“We took Thomas out early because he started to lose some of his velocity and we could see that something was just not right with him,” said Blythewood coach Barry Mizzell. “I don’t think it’s anything serious, but it’s early in the season and there’s no reason to push him.”
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Bone had two strikeouts and retired all six SV batters he faced in the fifth and sixth innings, and closer Beckwith needed only five pitchers in a 1-2-3 seventh inning to pick up the save.
Vikings ace Austin Hill deserved a better fate, allowing only three hits in a complete game loss that featured nine strikeouts.
“I knew Andrew was going to be tough because he’s a competitor,” said Mizzell. “I told the kids we would have to get to him early before he got into the groove and that’s just what we did.”
All the runs came in the bottom of the first. Leadoff man Brandon Burris, named the MVP as Blythewood went 3-0 on the way to Red Bank Invitational preseason tournament championship last week at White Knoll, worked Hill for a free pass and he scored on Derek Croxton’s double to left field. Croxton later scored on a two-out single by Hayden Banks.
“Andrew pitched great, but we had too many strikeouts and too many fly ball outs,” said first-year SV coach Collin Liggett.
Blythewood improved to 4-0, while Spring Valley fell to 2-2.
The Bengals bid farewell to a significant number of key senior players, including catcher Grayson Greiner (now starting at USC), off a team that went 23-7 and advanced to the Upper State tournament last season, but Mizzell is not crying the blues.
“The key is pitching depth,” said the veteran manager. “We’ve had real good pitching so far and if we keep getting it we should be all right. We have a lot of good players that people don’t know about yet, but I’ve never had a team with so many good (position) players. The challenge will be how we piece things together.”
Bessinger, Bone, Beckwith and Zach Hamilton are expected to be workhorses of the pitching staff.
Burris (center field), Bessinger and Banks (right field) are the veterans in the field.
Spring Valley outlook
Liggett came to Spring Valley as an assistant seven years ago when Charlie Wentzky assumed the job. Wentzky left to become the athletic director at A.C. Flora.
The Vikings took some graduation hits, but not nearly as heavy as Blythewood. Hill, Trae Dent and Anthony Paulsen are four-year varsity starters, and senior center fielder Gene Cone is a three-year starter.
“We have a great deal of experience and senior leadership,” said Liggett. “Now, we need to get healthy.”
Indeed, Dent (hamstring) and Paulsen (back) have been hit by early injuries. Dent was limited to a pinch-hitting role against Blythewood and Paulsen did not see any action.
Getting Dent and Paulsen back is vital – for their bats and their arms. Dent and Paulsen are the main rotation support for Hill. Chris Collins and first baseman Ben Taylor are also in the mound mix.
Spring Valley went 18-8 a year ago.