HAMLET — In its third summer of action, the Hamlet American Legion Post 49 baseball program intends to make a strong run at the state championship in July.
During the team’s pre-season meet and greet over the weekend, head coach Chip Gordon said the team’s improved overall depth and talent level should help the 49ers push deep into the dog days of summer.
Just two wins shy of making the American Legion state tournament in 2022, Gordon believes this year’s roster will yield more wins and a stronger chance over the next two months.
Hamlet went 14-10 last year, 11 wins better than its first season since returning, and secured the No. 2 seed in the Area 2 conference standings.
“I’m extremely pleased with the team to this point,” Gordon said after two weeks of practice. “We are probably the deepest we’ve been talent wise since we started back up in 2021. And that’s at all positions — we can easily move guys around and sub in and not miss a beat.
“There are a lot of strong bats that can come off the bench to pinch hit in situations, and there’s a lot of depth in the bullpen,” he added. “We’re not just one player deep at any position. I really believe we have two teams that could compete, that’s how deep we are.”
This year’s team fields 18 players from four counties — James Eason and Ashton Phifer (Richmond), Layton Hardee, Tristan Hunt, Matt Miller, Markey Purvis and Jon Westbay (Marlboro), Carter Bean, Hunter Huneycutt, Bryant Kimbrell, Mason Konen, Jackson Kuhn, Skylar Mathis, Hunter Meeds, Ryley Norton, Bohdi Robertson and JD Scarbrough (Moore) and Chaz Witmore (Scotland).
Of those players, only four return from last season — Hunt, Norton, Purvis and Witmore. Despite the large turnover, many of Post 49’s players are familiar with one another through high school and travel baseball.
“There’s a lot of chemistry already in two weeks,” Gordon shared. “It’s been a lot of fun. Pulling guys from four counties can be difficult, but it looks like they’ve been playing together for a long time. They’ve understood from the start that they’re playing for Hamlet that’s written across the front of their jersey.”
Hunt, who plays shortstop and also pitches, is a returning player Gordon said is the team’s unofficial captain. In his second summer with the team, the USC-Lancaster player hopes to embrace that leadership role.
“I’m trying to bring a lot of energy to the team this year,” Hunt said. “Like when we’re in the dugout during games, I want everyone paying attention and cheering on their teammates. We should be pretty locked in.
“There are a lot of competitors on this team,” he added. “I feel like everyone is going to show up when we need to and I expect to win a lot of games and compete well against teams in our region.”
Gordon noted that Post 49 also has several players who only pitch, an added weapon in the team’s depth arsenal. There are also “several position guys who can pitch,” which he expects to help alleviate the team’s pitching pressure, something he said led to the playoff exit last year.
While no starting rotation is set in stone, Gordon anticipates Kimbrell, Konen, Mathis, Miller, Robertson and Witmore to each collect a big chunk of Hamlet’s starts. Something the 49ers have added this summer is a trio of left-handed pitchers in Phifer, Robertson and Scarbrough.
Of the 18 players on the team, Gordon said 11 of them logged significant innings on the bump during school ball this spring, and expects as many as 13 guys to see the hill this summer.
“All of those guys are going to throw a lot of innings,” Gordon said. “Between vacations and playing 21 games in 27 days, no one will have a shortage in innings.”
Behind the plate will be Kuhn and Westbay, “two great catchers who are great at receiving and throwing, stopping balls in the dirt and can keep runners at bay.”
Dotting the infield will be a revolving door of players, including Hunt at short. Huneycutt, one of the more versatile players, will see action at first, second and third base, as well as center field.
Norton and Purvis will also play first and third, with Kimbrell getting some innings at first. Players like Eason, Hardee and Mathis will complete the middle infielder spots at second base.
Phifer and Bean will play left field, while Meeds and Scarbrough will camp out in center. Gordon said a host of other players will fill the needs in right field and that each lineup is the result of who is pitching.
At the plate, Hamlet will have two switch hitters in Huneycutt and Scarbrough, along with two other left-handed bats with Bean and Robertson.
“We’ve got a lot of speed and guys who can hit with power,” Gordon said. “The make-up of this team is the most talented we’ve had and the depth this season is a luxury a lot of teams don’t have.”
Huneycutt, an Appalachian State University signee who led the Sandhills Athletic Conference with a .440 batting average as a senior, expressed his confidence in the team’s ability to be competitive this summer because of cohesiveness and pitching.
“We’ve played against each other for a long time, and we definitely know each other,” Huneycutt said. “We’re looking forward to getting to know each other better as teammates. It’s cool being together in the same dugout coming from rival schools. We’re excited to get to work.
“Our depth is really good, especially when every position player can pitch. Pitching wins games and we definitely have that. Our expectation is nothing less than to win everything. We have a great team with good guys.”
When asked which areas of the team he believes are the strongest, Gordon said offensive depth, guys who can hit, and not being one-dimensional are atop the list.
Post 49 will compete in Area 2 again this summer, which has expanded to be split into two divisions. Part of the South Division, Hamlet will compete for a title against Ashley Post 129, Brunswick Post 143, Hope Mills Post 32 and Wilmington Post 10.
“We surprised a lot of people last year in our second season when we made that run and played some very good baseball,” Gordon said. “We have the same expectations to make the state tournament, and I think we have the team to do it. We ran out of pitching last year, and that’s not the case this summer.
“We’re hoping we have continued support from the community,” Gordon closed. “We want to thank all of our sponsors and are looking forward to a big turnout for our first home game to support the guys and the program as we make a push for a state title.”
The 49ers will open their season on Saturday, June 3, against Wayne County Post 11 at Mount Olive University (4:30 p.m.).
Hamlet will hold its home opener on Monday, June 5, with Horry County Post 111 visiting. A big opening day event is planned, set for county officials to be present and Rep. Ben Moss to throw out the first pitch.
Former coach George Whitfield will be on hand for a book signing. That game will begin at 7 p.m.
Below is an updated season schedule for the Hamlet American Legion Post 49 baseball team.