Excited Panthers ride coach’s experience into state championship series

On Friday, May 31, the Piedmont High School baseball team (28-3) will face North Brunswick with hopes of achieving its long-sought goal of winning a Class 2A state title. But to a man, the team won’t know what to expect from the scene. The well-defined dimensions of the infield will be the same as any the Panthers have played on this season. The ball will still be made of leather. But the weight of the customary seven innings will be largely foreign to the Panthers.

Piedmont baseball players (from left) Hunter Purser, Cody Purser, Colby Barnette, Hunter Jones and Cameron Price will attempt to add a state championship plaque to the Class 2A Western Regional championship they earned last weekend.

Piedmont baseball players (from left) Hunter Purser, Cody Purser, Colby Barnette, Hunter Jones and Cameron Price will attempt to add a state championship plaque to the Class 2A Western Regional championship they earned last weekend.

Except for coach Milt Flow, that is.

Flow was on the last Panther team to win a state title, back in 1984, when he was a pitcher on Piedmont’s 23-2 squad that swept its best-of-three series against East Carteret to win the Class 2A championship.

Just being able to describe the gravity of the situation, Flow hopes, might be enough for a slight advantage, which, at this point in the season, is worth its weight in gold.

“We can reiterate to them how special it is and soak up the moment and not take anything for granted,” Flow said. But he added, “No matter who you play it’s going to be a tough game.”

What Flow won’t have to reiterate to his players, however, is that they belong in the series.

Though the Panthers finished last season with a 14-15 record, they advanced to the Rocky River 1A/2A conference championship game and the second round of the playoffs. With just a few seniors on that roster and the majority of last year’s starters returning, there was a feeling throughout the team that last season could’ve been a stepping stone to something greater.

“Ever since the end of last year, this is all we’ve been thinking about,” said first baseman/pitcher Jonathan Caldwell. “From our last game last year, this is all we’ve talked about: winning a state championship.”

Throughout summer, fall and winter workouts, the goal was a constant theme, said the players. It was the motivation to hit the weight room on days off and the topic of conversation when they were spending time playing ping pong and riding four-wheelers.

“We just told each other we had to work hard,” said outfielder Hunter Purser.

The season itself, however, began with a bit of a thud, thanks to a 5-2 loss to Porter Ridge. But that game would prove to be more of a forgettable dress rehearsal. The Panthers regrouped to start the season with six consecutive non-conference wins, including victories over Sun Valley, Class 3A power Marvin Ridge and 3A defending champ Weddington.

“After we did that, we realized we had a really good chance of doing better things,” said Purser, “so we set our minds to it and worked hard in practice and really got on it.

“Our confidence was sky high. We just wanted to play that much harder to get to states.”

Added catcher Cody Purser, Hunter’s cousin: “We knew it could be a real special season. We had something really good going for us.”

The winning streak extended to 19 games but ended with an April 24 loss to Charlotte Christian, the state’s 3A private-school champ with a roster teeming with college recruits. The loss hurt, said Cody Purser, but also had a silver lining.

“You never want to lose a game, but I think losing that game helped us realize we can get beat and helped us to settle down and keep playing,” he said.

From there, the Panthers won eight consecutive games, including a successful run through the league tournament and four rounds of state playoffs. The Panthers advanced to the state title series after winning two games over Sylva Smoky Mountain in the 2A Western Regionals. They easily won the first game, 7-3, for Flow’s 300th victory as Piedmont’s head coach. But in Game 2, they fell, 6-3.

“I think we all went into that game a little overconfident,” said Hunter Purser. “Nobody expected that to happen. Everybody thought we had the game won before it started.”

In the third and deciding game on May 25, the Panthers were pushed to the brink of elimination, trailing 5-3 before battling back for an extra-inning 6-5 win capped by a Hunter Jones RBI single. But the fact that his team was able to win that series despite wading through several hardships was a good sign for Flow, especially with the state title series coming up. While trailing Smoky Mountain in Game 3, Flow thinks the Panthers players struck an equilibrium between high expectations and impending postseason mortality.

“You could look in their eyes, and they weren’t scared or anything,” said Flow. “There was a quiet confidence. I think it kind of woke them up.

“I think now they realize anybody can win on any day this far (into the playoffs). You’ve got to be good to get here.”

The Panthers certainly fit that bill with several players batting better than .300 and a strong pitching staff that includes Corey Sikes (10-0 record), Cameron Price (7-1), Caldwell (6-1) and Colby Barnette (3-1).

Flow isn’t the only thread linking this year’s team to the 1984 club. Price’s father, Rodd, was a starting center fielder back then.

“I realize this is something not a lot of people get to experience in their life,” said Cameron Price, also a center fielder, who went 5-for-10 with seven RBIs against Smoky Mountain. “(My dad) told me its something you’ll never forget. They had a really close team, too. He told me to cherish all the moments you have, with your friends, especially, getting to do this thing that not many people get to do.”

And that’s another thing Flow hopes to have in common with his players when this weekend’s series is through.

“We seemed a little tight this series against Smoky Mountain,” Flow said. “We’re going to try to relax them (this week) and get them to enjoy the moment. (We want them to) still work hard but be relaxed and have some fun with it.

“We remember everything,” Flow said, recalling his trip to the state title series as a player. “We don’t remember much else, but you remember that baseball season and all the boys that were on the team. This is going to be their best memory from high school – that’s my opinion – that they’re going to have. If we can get them to play with a little emotion, I think we’ll be a lot better off.”

But as for the moment itself, the opportunity facing his players? Considering their road to this point, Flow isn’t worried about how his team will respond to the challenge.

“(Against North Brunswick) in the championship, they’re going to be ready to go,” said Flow. “They’re going to be dialed in and focused in. They won’t take anybody for granted, no matter what.”

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