Ronnie Pugh wasn’t expecting his Randolph County Post 45 baseball team to make a return trip to the American Legion World Series this summer. But that doesn’t mean he’s surprised now that it’s headed back for another shot at a national title.
“We see the improvement, because we’re out there with them,” said Pugh, who coached a more veteran Randolph County squad to the tournament semifinals a year ago. “We see them working hard. Are we absolutely thrilled for them? Yes. Are we that surprised? Not really.
“We kind of saw it in them. It was just a matter of them clicking and putting everything together. They certainly did a good job.”
Post 45 is a team made up of players 19 years old and younger who live in and around the Asheboro area. It will begin play at the Legion World Series on Thursday at 4 p.m. against Midland, Mich. Post 165. Post 165 is the only other team back from last year’s finals.
The other six teams at the the World Series, which is being held at Keeter Stadium in Shelby, are Braintree, Mass. Post 86; Wilmington, Del. Post 1; Gonzales, La. Post 81; Dubuque, Iowa Post 137; Meridian, Idaho Post 113; and Las Vegas, Nev. Post 40. The tournament runs through next Tuesday with pool play games televised on ESPN3 and elimination round games on ESPNU.
Although there are six current team members making their second straight appearance in Shelby, only four of which were starters in 2017, the bulk of the roster is made up of newcomers — including three high school freshmen and three sophomores.
Expectations were also lowered by a rash of injuries that sidelined starters Dawson Painter, Tristan Marsh and Troy Kinney for long stretches of the regular season. That forced some of the team’s younger players to take on bigger roles than expected.
And they’ve come through in a big way, especially on the mound.
In last week’s regional tournament, Post 45 beat Lyon County, Ky. 8-3 behind the pitching of sophomore Braxton Davis and freshman Hunter Hill. One day later, the team beat Tallahassee, Fla. 11-1 with sophomore Harris Jackson throwing a complete game.
“This is the youngest Legion team I’ve ever coached by far, so we probably surprised a lot of people in our area by being here,” Pugh said. “But they’ve played well.”
As much as the youngsters have contributed, the strength of this Randolph County team (29-17) is still its veteran core.
Painter, who sat out his freshman season at UNC Pembroke with an injury, was named MVP of the Southeast Regional after hitting .529 in the tournament, pitching the championship-clinching victory against Troy, Ala., and hitting a homer in the game.
Austin Curry, a catcher committed to play his college ball at Lenoir-Rhyne, an even .500 for the week with a tournament-high six RBI. Kinney was also starting to round back into form before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Saturday’s semifinal.
Unlike last year, when it came within a key final inning hit of advancing to the championship game, Randolph County (29-17) enters this Legion Series as an underdog rather than a favorite.
If the team has one thing going for it, it’s the experience its coach and key players gained from having been there before.
“We learned that it’s good baseball every game out,” Pugh said. “We’re in a tough bracket. Michigan and Nevada are standard favorites when they come in here. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but our guys are playing well.
“It’s been really interesting listening to the new players, the younger guys asking questions about what to expect and everything. From a coach’s standpoint, having been here before make things a lot simpler, because we do know what to expect. From that standpoint, the meetings, the pictures, it’s been nice. But it’s still just as exciting as the first time.”