With dodgy spring weather and teams from out of state annual certainties, Wheels Invitiational baseball tournament organizer Tim Hager never knows exactly what he’ll get from the event.
But in its eight years the Wheels tournament has never had to cancel a game because of weather - though there has been significant reshuffling done before - and the non-local teams have almost always brought high levels of talent and competition to the event.
Attracting teams to Rock Hill is no problem. The tournament information is posted on the National Baseball Coaches Association’s web site where it attracts thousands of mouse clicks and eyeballs, while word of mouth also disseminates the Wheels reputation throughout the country, especially after seven years.
“We’re always turning teams away,” said Hager. “We did 16 teams the last couple years, but this year we cut it back to 12. We could probably put 20 teams in it if we really wanted to.”
Rock Hill, Northwestern and South Pointe will host this year’s event. Northwestern has won four of the event’s seven championships; Rock Hill won in 2010 and Fort Mill beat Northwestern in last year’s title game. The Yellow Jackets are the fourth local team competing; they play Rock Hill Friday night in a non-region matchup, the tournament’s lone local pairing. Wheels organizers try to avoid pitting region rivals against each other in the tournament.
“That’s something we tried to do,” said Hager. “We just can’t always do it.”
The weather should cool down significantly this week, but Hager is hoping all of the rain has moved out of the area in time for the tournament held in Larry “Wheels” Hinson’s honor.
“Cross your fingers,” Hager said.
Coming down from West Virginia, Poca High School brings the tournament’s best - or corniest, depending on your opinion - school mascot: the Dots. Yes, the Poca Dots have been known by the moniker since the late 1920s when a writer from the Charleston, W. Va., paper apparently suggested the nickname. The school, which has won eight West Virginia state championships in various sports, has been included in a number of best high school mascot lists through the years.
Traveling to Rock Hill
Poca isn’t the only team traveling to Rock Hill for the Wheels tourney. Another West Virginia school, Woodrow Wilson, perhaps reduntantly named the Flying Eagles, went 21-11 last season and reached the Class AAA state semifinals in West Virginia. Wilson is ranked second in the state in the most recent Prep Baseball Report poll.
Christiansburg (Va.) High School, located just south of Virginia Tech will make the trip down I-81 and I-77, while Faith Baptist Christian School located east of Tampa, Fla., will play in the Wheels after winning Perfect Game’s prestigious Perfect Game High School Showdown-Academies. The Eagles, who played in the Wheels several years back, feature a slew of players signed with junior colleges in Florida, a level of ball only a short step away from the pro game.
Mamaroneck High School comes down from New York state, having only begun its season on March 28. The Tigers are 3-2. They’ll be joined from the Mid-Atlantic by Marist High School, a strong program from New Jersey. The Royal Knights went 16-10 last season after winning the New Jersey state championship in 2011-12, and returned seven of nine starters.
Oxnard High School, with an enrollment of roughly 3,600 students, takes the prize for longest journey. The Yellow Jackets are coming all the way from Ventura County, Calif., located north of Los Angeles. They went 23-7 last year and won their conference championship.
Players to watch
Joseph Romero, Oxnard- 6-foot-tall left-handed pitcher, went 10-2 on the mound last season and is committed to the University of Nevada.
Chris Metrick, Woodrow Wilson- senior shortstop signed with West Virginia Wesleyan.
Jackson Massey, Fort Mill- junior is batting a team-best .425. Massey also has two home runs and 10 RBI, tied with Charlotte signee Brett Netzer for the team lead in those categories.
Avery Carter, Fort Mill- senior pitcher is 4-1 with a 2.33 earned run average. The 6-foot-3 Carter threw a no-hitter last week in a win over Lancaster.
Chase Watts, Rock Hill- 6-foot-4 senior outfielder is leading the Bearcats in batting with a .398 average.
Will Reid, Rock Hill- 6-foot-3 junior pitcher is 4-1 with a 1.65 earned run average for the Bearcats. Reid is committed to College of Charleston.
Garrett Rast, Northwestern- senior catcher has two home runs and 19 RBI for the Trojans this spring. Rast has recruiting interest from several D-II schools.
Josh Crump, Northwestern- clutch senior gets it done at the plate for the Trojans where he’s batting .367 with a team-high 22 RBI. Committed to Coastal Carolina.
Devryn Galloway, Rocky River- senior utility player is a base-stealing threat, batting .571 for the Ravens.
David Dunning, Rocky River- senior committed to Wingate is batting .324 for Rocky River this spring.
Anthony Pecora, Mamaroneck- junior middle infielder has eight RBI in the Tigers’ first five games this season and is hitting .438.
Josh Massey, South Pointe- fleet-footed centerfielder is committed to The Citadel for baseball and football.
Jake Payne, Poca- senior infielder/pitcher was an All-State selection in West Virginia last spring.
Matthew Littrell, Marist- 6-foot-2, 180-pound right-handed pitcher is committed to Monmouth.
Josh Witherspoon, Marist- left-handed pitcher stands 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and is committed to South Florida.
Ronny Orta, Faith Baptist- 5-foot-10 right-handed pitcher showed well in the Eagles’ big win at the Perfect Game Academies tourney, and was clocked at 90 on the 111th pitch of his start in that event.
Maikor Mora, Faith Baptist- 6-foot-1 senior pitcher is committed to Polk State College, a Florida junior college powerhouse. Perfect Game has clocked Mora’s fastball at 92.