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Prep Baseball: A.L. Brown preview

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
KANNAPOLIS ó Nine is a good baseball number, but A.L. Brown coach Empsy Thompson would like to put the nines behind him in 2009.
Thompson, head coach for nine seasons at Brown, is 123-112, but he’s watched the Wonders go 9-16, 9-18 and 9-13 since a special class with Garrett Sherrill, Ryan Query, J.D. Worthington and Eddie Boger won back-to-back conference tournaments before picking up their diplomas in 2005.
The Wonders enter this season with question marks, but they also enter it with proven pitching. That means an awful lot in the wacky world of the SPC.
How wild is the SPC? Well, Brown swept second-place Piedmont last season but still finished out of the playoff mix. Brown blew several big leads. The Wonders also won a game in which they came close to being no-hit.
Wacky? Absolutely.
Thompson’s excited this time. No Sherrills or Querys, but lots of good athletes.
“I don’t know that we’re going to have any one guy stick out above the others,” Thompson said. “This is just a blue-collar bunch, but I will say this ó they’ve done everything possible as far as preparing to have a successful season. We may start slow, but I’m confident we’ll keep improving. That’s the object of any coach.”
Brown lost fireballer/slugger Jacob Wright, among others.
Leading returners from a team that went 7-9 in the SPC are Dylan May, John Tuttle, Zach Wright, Wesley Honeycutt and Wesley Summerlin.
May, Tuttle and Wright are pitchers who have enjoyed success at the varsity level.
The catch is that Wright, one of the team leaders, is also the No. 1 catcher.
“Zach’s been dealing with health issues and it’s a lot to ask of a kid to pitch and catch,” Thompson said. “But if we can get Zach healthy and run him out there with May and Tuttle, they’re going to take care of a lot of Tuesdays and Fridays for us. That’s a key to our season.”
As a freshman in 2008, May was an instant success. He won three games early.
“May’s a little lefty, kinda crafty, and when he’s keeping his tempo up and throwing strikes, he’s tough,” Thompson said. “He’s smart for a young kid. He stays ahead in the count, pitches to contact, lets his defense help him out.”
Tuttle benefited from summer innings with the Kannapolis Legion team. A right-hander with some size, he’s a good athlete. Like May, he’ll be an important part of the lineup and defense when he’s not pitching.
“John did a good job for us last year,” Thompson said. “The key for him is he can’t get into those 2-0 and 3-1 counts. If he gets ahead, he’s very effective.”
Other potential pitchers include Zach Erwin, an imposing lefty who is 6-foot-2, 190 pounds and can throw 82-83 mph.
“Erwin is a specimen, and he’s working on his control,” Thompson said.
Ryan Blackmon, who has been a terror as a jayvee linebacker, is a strong-armed sophomore who also can top 80 mph with his fastball.
“He’s a very aggressive athlete with that football and weight-room mentality,” Thompson said.
Summerlin, Ryan Hartsell and big Matt Griffin, a football offensive lineman, can contribute innings.
When Wright pitches, the catching options are Blackmon and Justin Gaskey.
Summerlin, long, lean and a big target, is expected to be the regular at first base. The senior delivered several key hits last season.
At second base will be Honeycutt, a hard-nosed bulldog who might steal home or might drive a gapper to left-center. A junior, he does a lot of little things right. He’s been a varsity starter since his freshman year.
Honeycutt has also played shortstop, but Thompson is convinced he’s better suited to second base.
“At second, he doesn’t rush himself trying to make something great happen,” Thompson said.
The steady Tuttle established himself at shortstop last season. The Wonders played their best defensive ball with him at short and Honeycutt at second. Thompson will keep that combination intact whenever possible.
When Tuttle takes his turn on the mound, Honeycutt will slide over to shortstop, with sophomore Justin Kidd playing second base.
“Kidd can play, but it may be a revolving door for him between varsity and jayvees,” Thompson said. “We’ll need him at second base some, but we don’t won’t a sophomore sitting with the varsity if he’s not in the lineup.”
Tyler Gilmore, a football receiver/quarterback who moved to Kannapolis from Texas, is a huge addition to the baseball program. Thompson has him penciled in as the regular third baseman, and he has the wheels to lead off.
Hartsell and Blackmon are other options at the hot corner.
The outfield is less settled, but May will play center when he’s not pitching.
“Defensively, he’s one of the better ones we’ve had here,” Thompson said.
Dennis Lopez has the inside track to start in right.
“Dennis didn’t start playing baseball until he was a freshman,” Thompson said. “But he’s a very special kid. The way you teach him is the way he does things.”
Spencer Falls a rangy three-sport athlete, could start in left field. He’s made an impression after taking a year off from baseball. The versatile Hartsell is also a possibility in left.
Colby Reid or Quin Gill, two exceptional athletes ó Reid made the catch that got Brown past Charlotte Catholic in the football playoffs ó will get time in the outfield. Either Reid or Gill will play center when May pitches.
Erwin has power and looks like a born DH.
Thompson said his team surprised him with lusty hitting in early scrimmages.
If Gilmore comes through at the top of the order, the plan is for Honeycutt, Wright and Tuttle to hit in the 3-4-5 spots.
Good pitching cures a lot of ills, and if Wright is healthy the Wonders will be OK.
Maybe better than OK.
There are a lot of tough-minded people on the roster, lots of football players from a school known for football.
“Like I said, we’re blue-collar all the way,” Thompson said. “It’s a great bunch. We’ll see what we can do.”
Brown hasn’t won a playoff game since 2002 when Thompson put current Minnesota Twins farmhand Zach Ward on the mound. That drought may not end this year, but bet on the Wonders to win more than nine.

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