Legion baseball: Rowan’s opponent following doctor’s orders

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 6, 2009

By Bret Strelow
Juggling the responsibilities of his full-time job and the demands of American Legion baseball can be like pulling teeth to Dr. Wallie Jones.
Jones, in his 23rd season as Sumter Post 15’s head coach, began practicing dentistry in 1974. His office on Liberty Street is 21/2 miles from Riley Park, where Rowan County Post 342 will play tonight in a Southeast Regional contest against the tournament host.
“I have come up here at night with my uniform on to take care of people after games,” Jones said during a break from work on a busy Wednesday.
Sumter (24-9) will face Rowan (32-7) this evening at approximately 8:30 p.m. A game between Irmo-Chapin (S.C.) and Conyers (Ga.) at 5 p.m. kicks off the night session.
Jones has led Sumter to eight state championships as well as World Series berths in both 2006 and 2008. The P-15’s went 0-2 at this year’s state tournament, losing 11-3 to Irmo-Chapin and 10-9 to West Columbia.
“We went there to play our best baseball and just didn’t play well,” Jones said. “I don’t think it really had anything to do with the fact we knew we were going to play the next week because certainly you lose a little confidence every time you get spanked by somebody, and we got beat up on pretty good a couple times. We kind of have to rebuild a little psychologically.”
Left-handed pitcher Jordan Montgomery, shortstop Bruce Caldwell and catcher-outfielder Tony Micklon are the current standouts for a Sumter program that captured a state championship in 1962 with Jones excelling on the field and his dad, Bernie, serving as a first-year head coach.
Jones, who played collegiately at South Carolina, has a 571-171 record as Sumter’s coach.
“I tell everybody I’ve lost more than any coach that’s ever coached in Sumter,” Jones said with a laugh. “It’s been a pleasure being in a town that supports us so well.”
The P-15’s have only one player ó Micklon, who started 20 games as a Presbyterian freshman ó who wasn’t in high school during the 2008-09 school year. Caldwell, 17, and Montgomery, 16, are both rising juniors at Sumter High.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Montgomery is expected to start on the mound against Rowan. He is 6-2 with a 1.17 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 611/3 innings. He’s allowed a total of 48 hits.
Montgomery, whose first loss came in relief, gave up 10 hits and six runs (four earned) in five innings of the state tournament loss to Irmo-Chapin. He entered that game with a 0.64 ERA, having allowed three earned runs in 551/3 innings that covered his first nine starts.
N.C. champion Randolph County saddled Montgomery with a loss out of the bullpen during the 2008 regional.
“He had some success with us as a 15-year-old last year, and I think he’s going to be an excellent pitcher as he gets older,” Jones said. “He’s a little bit underage for this level now because a whole lot of these teams are going to be coming in with college players. For a 16-year-old to run out there, it’s asking an awful lot, but he’ll throw strikes.”
Caldwell leads Sumter in average (.414), RBIs (46), runs scored (39) and doubles (17). He also has five homers.
Caldwell’s brother Allen, a 12th-round pick of the Kansas City Royals last year, is playing this season with the Idaho Falls Chukars of the Pioneer League. He shared a field with former Catawba standout Jerry Sands on Saturday.
Caldwell, who swings from the left side, is Sumter’s No. 3 hitter.
“He punches the ball around all over the ballpark and doesn’t strike out a lot,” Jones said.
Micklon, Sumter’s cleanup hitter, has eight home runs, 32 RBIs and a .273 average. He is a fifth-year player who participated in World Series trips to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Shelby.
Sumter finished fourth nationally in 2006 and 2008. During last year’s World Series, Caldwell went 6-for-17 with a homer and Micklon was 7-for-13.Rowan coach Jim Gantt said North Carolina state tournament MVP Trey Holmes performed the closest to his potential in Greenville, and Jones agreed that big-game experience can be valuable.
“Whatever skill level they are, you’re more likely to get it out,” Jones said. “It won’t be, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s a lot of people here.’ ”
Jones anticipates a large crowd gathering for tonight’s contest at 75-year-old Riley Park, formerly home to the Sumter Braves.
The double-elimination regional runs through Monday, and Jones’ mid-week schedule likely won’t revolve around cavities or crowns.
Said Jones, “The minute the last out is made, whenever that happens to be, I’ll just kind of fall over and play dead for a couple of days and get back going again.”