WC's Junior Legion team ready for state tournament

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The season opener didn’t look too promising.

Pitchers labored to find the strike zone.

Defensive errors piled up by the inning.

Hitting was nearly non-existent.

“This game has no impact on the season, it’s more about how you respond,” Wayne County Post 11 Junior Legion head coach Coy Barnett said in his post-game speech after that early-June loss to Southern Wayne.

The humbling, double-digit defeat didn’t have a lasting effect.

In fact, it provided a wake-up call.

Wayne County reeled off eight consecutive wins and eventually emerged as the Area I champion. Post 11 continues its postseason run Thursday against either Lexington or Mt. Airy in the 2021 N.C. Junior American Legion state tournament.

Game time is 7 p.m. at Holt-Moffitt Field in Lexington.

Post 11 is in the four-team Stripes Division that includes Lexington-Mt. Airy winner, Carson and Hooks-Orr Matthews Post 235. Wayne County plays Carson on Friday and faces Hooks-Orr Matthews on Saturday.

The Stars Division has Area I runner-up Kinston Post 43, Area II champ Morehead City, the HiToms and Area IV champ Cherryville Post 100.

The top two finishers in each pool advance to Sunday’s semifinal round.

“We have a very young team, our oldest player might be 16,” said Barnett, who played on Post 11’s senior team that reached the state tournament in 2014.

“Starting out in June, you could notice the immaturity of the kids. Not many had been on a varsity team before and not many had played on a competitive level. From June until now, these guys have grown a lot, molded as a team, pick each up all the time and have learned how to handle adversity. 

“They’ve been a pleasure to coach and have done all I’ve asked of them.”

Wayne County (11-4 overall) rallied to defeat Southern Wayne, 16-10, in a rain-delayed game in Area I tournament play. Southern held a 9-1 advantage before Post 11 roared back with an 11-run outburst to seize command and set up a championship battle against Kinston.

Kinston, survivor from the losers’ bracket, opted not to play the final and settled for the No. 2 seed for the state tournament.

Barnett hopes his three-player pitching rotation can produce during pool play. His top starter is eighth-grader Connor Redford, who lives the New Hope area. Landon Sutton is No. 2 and Logan Lawhorn, who plays at Charles B. Aycock, is the No. 3 starter.

From there, it’s been pitch by committee. Barnett and assistant coach Ryan Sullivan have called upon Rosewood’s tandem of Cam Medlin and Landon Merritt, and Aycock’s duo of Dalton Smith and Jack Heath.

“They’ve been consistent every time we’ve put them out there,” Barnett said. “They’ve been reliable and have made it easy to manage [the game]. Most important is game one [Thursday] and if we can through that with a minimal amount of arms and save our staff, we’ll be in good shape.

“I trust all of the guys who throw for us…don’t mind flip-flopping the guys because I’m pretty confident they can get the job done for us.”

The team’s offensive leaders have been Sutton, Trevor Warren, Cole McFatter, Ayden West and Wilkes Thomas. West has handled catching duties and been a brick wall behind the plate, while Thomas - who attends boarding school in Asheville - has flashed the leather defensively at third base. 

“A delightful surprise,” Barnett said.

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