The only Friday night lights anybody in Rock Hill will be talking about this week tower over Northwestern’s baseball diamond, tucked behind the school amidst a stand of pine trees.
A week after the NFL draft shined the spotlight squarely on “Football Town USA,” the Trojans (23-3) host Rock Hill (19-10) in the Class AAAA baseball Upper State championship Friday night. Whether Northwestern wins once or Rock Hill pulls off an improbable two wins in one night, the city of Rock Hill will have its first baseball state championship series representative since 1970.
“It’s great for the city of Rock Hill,” said Bearcats coach Dell Corley, who was putting his team through its paces in one of the school’s gyms on Thursday because of the steady rain. “First time, as far as I know, that Rock Hill and Northwestern have been in the Upper State championship. Know it’s happened in football, but never in baseball.”
“It’s very cool, very exciting,” said Northwestern baseball coach Mitch Walters, whose team had just finished hitting in its covered outdoor batting cage. “Around the state, football-wise, you always hear that. But they don’t give us much credit for Region 3 in baseball, and we heard that coming into this year from a lot of people.”
Robert Hope, the former longtime YMCA director known to bellow “hey, hey, hey” at local baseball games, remembered scattered success for Rock Hill’s Post 34 American Legion team, but not much for the high schools. Hope would know; the 84-year-old started the city’s tee-ball program in 1978 and coached Walters when he was a tyke.
Lewisville (2010, 1992, 1989, 1985-87), Fort Mill (2002, 1961-62), Lancaster (1991, 1989) and York (1977) have all won baseball state titles since Rock Hill won the city’s last championship in 1967, the same year that Corley was born.
Paul Love coached that bunch of Bearcats, and Moe Bell, who played on the team, remembers the hard-nosed Love treating his squad like a football team.
“When we lost, we were punished like football players,” said Bell. “He was tough on us. But it was also a team that was very close. That was just the most fun year because we got along so well. I guess it’s more fun when you win, right?”
Like the two squads playing Friday, those ’67 Bearcats had pitching. Jimmy Blackmon was the ace, a right-handed hurler who could throw around 90 miles per hour and later played pro baseball. Jimmy Laughridge, an all-around jock that Bell said probably would’ve been good at horseshoes and golf, and the late Larry Hollis, a lefty with plenty of junk on his pitches, gave Love three quality starters. The team lost back-to-back games to Dorman and Lancaster during the regular season but won the rest of its 11 contests, before beating Anderson in two out of three games to advance to the state finals.
The 1967 Bearcats topped A.C. Flora in two games to win the state championship down in Columbia, and Bell doesn’t remember too much about the game except for the celebratory dog-pile afterward. There was no parade or state championship rings for Love’s group. Bell recalls each player received a red parka with a Bearcats emblem on it, but that was all.
The winner of Friday night’s game between Rock Hill and Northwestern won’t get much of anything tangible either, though bragging rights will unquestionably go to the winners, as well as a shot at winning the state title rings that the ’67 bunch were not offered. The Trojans have beaten the Bearcats all three times this year, by a combined four runs, including Monday’s 3-1 victory. But both coaches agreed that fact could mentally impact the teenagers on the field in any number of ways.
“Whether you’re on the side that’s won three or four ball games, or whether you’re on the other side, I think it’s tough to beat somebody that many times in a row,” said Corley. “It’s all gonna’ come down to pitching and defense and timely hitting. I know that without a doubt.”
“Any time you’re dealing with high school players, you never really know what they’re thinking about,” said Walters, who graduated from Northwestern in 1982. “You try to keep them as focused as possible, and if I knew how to do that, I promise you I wouldn’t be teaching. I’d be selling books somewhere.”
Regardless of which side wins, the city of Rock Hill will have a baseball team in the state championship for the first time in over 40 years. That alone is reason to celebrate. The game has the can’t-miss-feel that’s normally reserved for high school football at District Three Stadium. Asked if he would be attending the big game Friday night, Hope responded, “has a cat got a tail?”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T