FORT MILL -- New faces, a new name and hopefully, a new presence.
"We're really hoping to see a lot more fans this year," Carolina Thunder general manager Larry Tremitiere said as his team prepared to begin another season. "With our increased local presence, we're expecting some good crowds."
The area's local college summer baseball league team played its first game last night and opens its home schedule tonight. Formerly the Carolina Sox, the team takes the field at Fort Mill High School with a spiffy new name and logo.
The Thunder employ the same Yellow Jacket insignia that Fort Mill and Georgia Tech use, the insect holding a bat in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other. Tremitiere is hoping the merging of his team with the familiar Fort Mill mascot will boost excitement around the area, as well as ticket sales.
"Major League Baseball said all teams using one of their logos had to have permission, and rather than go through all that, we just decided to change our name," Tremitiere said. "Using the Yellow Jacket ties us in with Fort Mill, and this being our second year here, it's a good way to reach out to the community."
The Thunder concentrated on signing players with local ties and got commitments from 15, making up a large chunk of the roster. Twelve played high school baseball in the region and three more just finished their first seasons at Winthrop.
"We had all heard about the league and it was a real good league to get in," said one of the Winthrop participants, native Rock Hillian Cam Walters. "Especially since we didn't get a whole lot of innings this year."
Walters, Casey Bradwell, Brandon Sills and Brad Deal are the Winthrop contingent and former prep standouts Jamie Holler, Hank Wofford, Brice Warner, Tyler Lehman, Chris Honeycutt and Thomas Garner are also in town. The premise is simple -- stay in shape for a couple of months by playing against other college stars home for summer break and prepare yourself for the future.
The Southern Collegiate Baseball League, like other summer leagues, uses wooden bats. Most players are dealt a quick learning curve after using aluminum all season, but it becomes easier.
And when they report back to campus, they've got an increased knowledge of hitting and a deeper appreciation for wood.
"Swing and hit it well, it's going to go," said Sills, who redshirted 2008 at Winthrop. "Totally different game with a wooden bat, though. The ball moves off the bat a lot differently."
Coach Chuck Rinehimer, an assistant coach last year who was promoted, said it's a tough chore to get all his players in, adjusted and on the field in the hectic weeks following the college baseball season, but the Thunder have accomplished it. He credited the work by his two assistants, Greg Keaton and Wally Weir, and gave his team an early endorsement as a fun bunch to watch.
"We've got great kids," Rinehimer said. "Eager, hungry, some of them redshirted so they're coming in ready to play. They make it pretty easy to be a coach."
All that's left is to produce on the field. The Thunder hurriedly warmed up with a scrimmage over the weekend and hit the road on Monday to open the year.
They return home at 7 p.m. today, hosting Tennessee.
"Last year was kind of tough, but obviously Fort Mill's a baseball school, a baseball area," said Rinehimer, alluding to the sparse gate receipts in 2007. "We have more local talent this year than we did last year, so it should be an improvement."