When Milt Flow led Piedmont’s baseball team to a state title in 1984 as a standout pitcher, he thought he’d reached the pinnacle of high school sports accomplishments.
But it wasn’t until nearly three decades later that Flow realized his dream of coaching the Panthers to a state championship.
Last year, the Panthers swept the best-of-three series over North Brunswick, claiming the championship with an impressive 30-3 record. The title capped the recent dominance of Panther baseball, as they’ve gone 84-38 in the last four seasons and confirmed preseason expectations that they could be one of the best teams in the state.
“I’ll tell you and the other coaches that played on that team will tell you – we enjoyed it back then when we played but it meant more to us last year,” Flow said. “We realized how much it took to get there, all the hard work and everything. It made it more special.”
It was the near-perfect season for the Panthers, who regrouped after dropping their season opener against Porter Ridge only to go on a 19-game win streak including a 13-run win over defending Class 3A champion Weddington. Along they way, they set the Union County record for wins in a season, averaged 8.8 runs per game, had a team batting average of .347 and racked up 24 home runs over the course of the season.
And this year, the Panthers hope to do it all again.
Returning pitcher Corey Sikes was 11-0 last year, including tossing a complete game win in the state title game, while only allowing one hit in the final six innings. The all-state lefty has accepted a full scholarship to play for Western Carolina in the fall, but said while the memories of the championship win are still fresh on his mind, it’s this season that is now his primary focus. And if it pans out the way he’s expecting, it could be just as memorable.
“Winning the title last year – it was awesome,” Sikes said. “It was an experience I’ll never forget. It was loud, it was crazy and I think it’s something we’d want to do again if we had the chance.
“We’ve all thought about another title and talked about our talent taking us to the same place. It’s going to be challenging just like last year but I think we can definitely do it.”
But the Panthers will have their work cut out for them. This year the defending state champion’s lineup card will look a lot different as they graduated seven seniors off of last year’s squad including third baseman and University of North Carolina recruit Colby Barnette (.402 BA, 45 hits, 34 RBIs, seven home runs) who finished sixth in state public school history in career RBIs (127) and base hits (148). Combine Barnette’s loss with the graduation of Hunter Purser, Cameron Price and Cody Purser, and the Panthers have a lot of holes to
But they have players – starting with a talented senior class that’s even bigger than last year – to lean on as they hope to duplicate last season’s success.
Alongside Sikes, the Panthers return shortstop and Charlotte 49ers commit Hunter Jones (.345 BA), center fielder and North Carolina A&T commit Nigel Hester (.425 BA, 14 stolen bases, five triples), Greensboro College signee Josh Evans and have additional help in West Stanly transfer and Mars Hill commit Caleb Dulin. With Austin Harding (.350 BA, seven doubles), Colton Greene and Carlos Sandoval adding experience to the senior depth, the Panther roster is stacked with similar talent to their championship squad.
“We definitely have the same leadership from our senior class this year,” Jones said. “That’s there. With that, we’ve got young guys ready to work because that’s part of the tradition here at Piedmont. Everyone is hungry and ready to go. We want to go back-to-back and I think we’ve got the guys to do it. We’ll definitely stand out
In addition to the seniors, the Panthers also boast Forest Hills transfer David Nash who will take over second base. Nash, a junior, hit .342 last season as a Yellow Jacket with nine RBIs, and will be counted on for a similarly big season in his first year at Piedmont.
“This group, we’ve got some good players coming in,” Flow said. “We’ve got our center fielder, shortstop and pitcher back. Then we got lucky with our two transfers so our pitching is set. All the other boys, they’ve bought into baseball here. They’ll go the extra bit without being told. They know the hard work and what it takes. We’ve got a chance to play good defense and we’ve got good pitchers.”
The biggest adjustment for the Panthers will be making up for the big bats they lost in Barnette, Price and the Pursers, who hit 21 of the team’s 24 home runs last season.
“Our biggest thing right now is focusing on our bats,” Flow said. “That’s my concern. We’re going to need our bats to catch fire. Sometimes it just takes a while for them to heat up but if the bats show up, we could (win the championship)
The Panthers certainly looked like a championship-hungry team in their season opener against Mount Pleasant on Feb. 28, where they beat the Tigers, 6-1. In their next game, a 12-2 loss to two-time defending private school champion Charlotte Christian on March 4, Flow’s fears were realized when the Panthers could muster only two hits.
Despite the loss, Sikes and Flow are hoping this team can live up to their own expectations and the community-wide reputation of Piedmont baseball – something that Sikes says makes playing at Piedmont special.
“There’s a lot of people from this area that know how each and every one of us play,” he said. “A lot of people know every player and what our strengths and weaknesses are and how we play. We’ve got a strong team largely because of the support behind us. The environment here – Piedmont baseball is one of the biggest things around. It’s one of our strongest programs out here and the fans are incredible. That makes it fun.”
Flow said that even with the wealth of returning talent, key newcomers and high expectations, he and his coaching staff are trying to keep their team focused on each game knowing that in the regular season – and the playoffs – anything can happen. And as the returning champions, they’re well aware they’ve got a big target on their backs.
“Last year, we got hot at the right time,” he said. “We’re preaching to our boys that it could happen again if they get hot and they have to know that anybody could win it, it just depends on when you get hot. It’s possible that we could go back-to-back and they’re buying into that. It’s going to be tough because everyone is going to be throwing their best at us and then they’ll be excited if they do beat
And though it’s been 30 years since Flow pitched his last high school game, he knows that the memories made on the diamond don’t easily fade so he’s hoping to push the Panthers into another storybook season.
“We’re preaching to the boys that they better enjoy this, because they’re going to be talking about it for the rest of their lives,” Flow said. “My team, we still talk about when we won it. I want them to soak it all up. It’s a special time.”