Northwestern looking to keep Wheels trophy

Baseball season is in full swing again, and at Northwestern High School, it means one thing.

Time to defend the title.

The Trojans join 11 other teams today to begin the third Wheels Baseball Invitational, named for late rampant Trojans booster Larry "Wheels" Hinson, the father of Northwestern alum and current Clemson southpaw Ryan Hinson. Northwestern has won each of the two previous tournaments and feels like it's a mission to keep the trophy at the home of its namesake.

"Ryan went to Northwestern and his dad was a big part of the team," said senior pitcher/shortstop Will King. "It feels great for Northwestern knowing that he came from here. It'd be great to win it again."

"Anytime we get in the tournament, we want to play well for that reason," coach Mitch Walters said. "But also we want to play good and get better for the end of the year, too. We try to use it as a springboard to get into the playoffs and play good baseball."

Larry Hinson, who supported youth baseball all around the city, died in 2004, never getting a chance to see his son pitch in college. City officials got together and decided to put on a first-class tournament in his honor, fielding teams from around the area but also drawing teams from the state and the nation.

This year's field boasts the three city schools, Northwestern, Rock Hill and South Pointe, plus familiar region opponents York, Great Falls and Clover. Greenwood and Westside join from around the state and four out-of-state teams round out the field.

Carrick, from Pittsburgh; Upper St. Clair, from Upper St. Clair, Pa.; Bayside, from Virginia Beach, Va.; and Chaminade Madonna Prep, from Hollywood, Fla., return to Rock Hill after participating in the Wheels during the first two years. The draw of the Wheels has gotten so great that officials had to turn away other interested teams.

"Twelve is a pretty good working number for us," said Tim Hager, an assistant coach at Rock Hill and one of the tournament's founders. "Get too much bigger, it may dilute the product, the service and hospitality."

There will be three games today and Friday at each of the in-city high school fields, with Saturday's consolation games set at Rock Hill and Northwestern and the semifinals and championships at The Winthrop Ballpark. The local teams play the Wheels in the middle of their region schedules, perhaps giving some younger or less-experienced players a chance before the all-important playoff push resumes.

There's an added benefit. The tournament was held on spring break the past two years but this year, Rock Hill's schools are in session.

"We're in school, which means we got kids here at school who say, 'We got baseball going on. Might want to go watch a ballgame,'" Bearcats coach Eddie Hill said. "Gets more people involved."

Northwestern has won the other two tournaments but there's only a handful of players still around who were on those teams. The Trojans (7-5) will have to deal with a resurgent Rock Hill squad (6-6) and 5-9 South Pointe, along with the rest of a strong field.

But Walters agreed with Hill's assessment, that perhaps having the tournament on a regular school week will help.

"Sometime during spring break when they got all day to lay around, we don't mentally get ready to play ball," Walters said. "Better to keep them in routine. Go to class, get out, go play ball."