Fun and Games (and Winning)

Union County resident plays big role for Pineville summer college baseball team

by Aaron Garcia

Marvin Ridge alum and current Pineville Pioneer Brett Thompson was named as an SCBL all-star alternate after batting .292 this season. Aaron Garcia/SCW photo

When Brett Thompson joined the Pineville Pioneers baseball team this summer, his main goal was to get some innings on the field.

Last spring, as a freshman at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College, the former Marvin Ridge High School standout found himself behind several outfielders on the Leopards’ roster – a pretty common problem for underclassmen on the college level. Thompson appeared in five games and had two at-bats. He was held without a hit but scored twice.

Soon after he agreed to play for the Pioneers, however, his ultimate goal changed a bit after Pineville’s Chief Operating Officer Dave Collins, a Weddington resident, showed Thompson the team’s 2011 Southern Collegiate Baseball League championship ring.

“The rings they got last year were awesome,” said Thompson. “That makes you want it a little more.”

So far, despite returning just a handful of players from last year’s title-winning roster, the Pioneers are right back in the SCBL playoff race with two weeks to go. The SCBL, a wooden-bat summer league for future and current college baseball players, concludes its season late this month, with the playoffs commencing shortly thereafter. Entering their July 18 game at the Morganton Aggies, Pineville had a 19-16 record and was just a half-game back of the league-leading Ballantyne Smokies.

Thompson has adjusted well to the increased role this summer. He’s batting .292 with 15 RBIs and 26 runs as the team’s lead-off hitter. This week, Thompson was named one of the Southern Division’s three alternates for the 2012 SCBL all-star game, slated for Sunday, July 22, at Gardner-Webb University.

Thompson said it took him just a few days to shake off his rust.

“The first three games, it was a little bit foreign to me,” Thompson said. “Then, after I spent a couple of days in the lead-off spot, I kind of found that stride again. I forgot all about not being able to play up there and remembered what it was like to play. It just took off and took care of itself.”

Last year, as a first-year franchise, the Pioneers entered the postseason as a fourth seed but hit their stride and took the SCBL title back to Pineville. The impact of the team’s success has been two-fold, said Collins. For one, many of last year’s players moved on to bigger summer leagues across the nation, leaving the Pioneers staff plenty of holes to fill for this season. Of course, being a title-winning team didn’t exactly hurt.

“Having had the championship, a lot of the college coaches from all over the place were calling us as early as October,” said Collins. “We had our roster almost full by November.”

Collins, however, said the team’s success has come second to the environment surrounding the team. After a spring filled with high-pressure college ball, creating a fun ambiance has gone a long way toward earning wins.

“That lends itself more to guys wanting to be here than a championship itself,” said Collins.

Thompson agreed.

“I’ve been having a lot of fun, and that’s helped me play well this summer,” Thompson said.

It’s the same formula that worked last year, and manager Terry Brewer, 62, said it won’t change any time soon.

“I’m too old to change much, so there’s nothing new (this year),” said Brewer, a Charlotte native who played baseball at Gardner-Webb and coached at Charlotte’s Garinger and West Charlotte high schools before working as a talent scout for the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I only have two simple rules,” Brewer said. “First, let’s have some fun and, (second), work hard enough to get better.

“If you do that, we’ll have a chance to win.”

The Pioneers’ pitching staff has certainly heeded the mantra. Brewer said that after starting slowly, the team’s hurlers “have gotten a lot better.”

He added that “some of the kids have worked hard and are throwing more strikes and giving us a chance to win.”

Wingate pitcher Matt High has led the way with a 1.15 ERA and 24 strikeouts while allowing just two earned runs for a 1-1 record with two saves. Appalachian State pitcher Jeff Springs is next with a 2.82 ERA (2-2 record), followed by Charlotte Providence High alum Ryan McClintock, who’s recorded a 4.71 ERA with 17 strikeouts and six walks. Belmont Abbey sophomore Paul Sterling (3-1) and Davidson senior Bryan DaCanal (3-2) are each tied for second in the league in wins.

The team’s hitting, however, has been consistent all season. While the Pioneers are just fifth in the league in batting with a .264 average, they’re first with 175 RBIs and second in walks (142) and runs scored (210).

Anthony Domino (University of South Carolina Upstate) has recorded team highs in average (.369), RBIs (25), doubles (11) and stolen bases (12). David Daniels (Davidson) is hitting .317 with 26 runs and 24 RBIs, while N.C. A&T catcher Stephan Jordan is hitting .296. Charlotte Country Day alum and rising Washington & Lee University senior Jonathan Stutts also has been solid, batting .261 in 11 games.

Thompson said that his summer hasn’t been simply fun and games, though, especially with Brewer at the helm.

“He just knows the ins and outs of the game,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s pitching or hitting or fielding a ground ball – he can tell you if you’re doing something wrong. That’s really helpful. A lot of coaches don’t have that eye for seeing somebody doing something really minor wrong, but he can fix it.”

Thompson also added that he’s been impressed with the level of competition, especially among the opposing pitchers.

“I knew they’d be good, but it’s pretty much like facing Patriot League pitching,” said Thompson, referring to the conference in which his Lafayette squad plays.

“It’s right at that level, if not better. It’s what you want to be doing over the summer. You could go to the (batting) cage and take repetition after repetition, but until you’re seeing guys snapping off curveballs and changeups at you, it’s just not going to help much.”

Thompson believes being given the opportunity to improve while also being close to home has been ideal for him.

“I didn’t get to see my family at all (during the college season),” Thompson said. “Being able to come home and then play baseball, you feel much more comfortable when you’re at the field. You feel so much better.”

Which, if Brewer and Collins are correct, could mean big things for the Pioneers again this summer.

“It feels really good (being in the title hunt),” said Thompson. “We’re OK with being right there with two weeks left. We really want to keep this little push going.

“Nobody’s worried – we’re just having fun. We want to see how far we can ride it.”

And although he wasn’t a part of the franchise’s first tile, Thompson said he’d like to contribute to the Pioneers’ repeat success.

“Hearing Coach Brewer talk about last year, you can see how much he wants it,” Thompson said. “It kind of just carries over to the team. We automatically feel like we want to win it.”

And, as Thompson knows, that has a nice ring to it.

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