HOPE MILLS — It’s a rarity in American Legion baseball for a team that has several schools feeding players into the program to feature an infield made up mostly of teammates from one school.
The Hope Mills Boosters American Legion team’s infield on Wednesday night during Game 3 of its best-of-five Area II series against Whiteville Post 137 included three infielders from Purnell Swett, something that coach Mark Kahlenberg thinks helps congeal his defensive unit.
“Up the middle, in the heart of the infield, you have Matthias (Carter) and Cal (Hunt) being used to playing with each other — and they know where each other are all the time,” Kahlenberg said.
The duo of Carter at shortstop and Hunt at second base flashed the leather in the Boosters’ walkoff 3-2 victory in 11 innings, with big putouts that kept Post 137 from grabbing the lead late in the game. Matt Strickland played at first with his fellow teammates. The three have been playing together since youth baseball at the ages of 7 and 8 years old and are well accustomed to the way each other play.
“I’ve played with them for most of my life and through high school,” Hunt said. “I’m just used to playing with them and know what to expect out of them.”
Hunt had a diving stop in the ninth inning with the scored tied and flipped the ball to Carter at second, who nearly turned a double play, but the out kept a runner out of scoring position for Whiteville, who threatened late.
“It’s all about chemistry,” Carter said. “You keep the same guys around and good things are going to happen.”
Carter and Strickland scored the first two runs for the Boosters with Carter’s run coming late in the contest to knot the score at 2-all.
The three Rams have been an integral part of the Boosters’ success this season as they went 10-4 in the regular season to finish second in Area II and are now a win away from the Area II title series and spot in the North Carolina American Legion state championships in Wingate next week. This is the first season of American Legion baseball for all three players.
Along with playing first base, Strickland has seen time on the mound and has seen how playing and practicing every day all summer for American Legion can translate for him as he prepares to play for St. Andrews University.
“He’s pitched two great games, one in this series, and he really shut them down,” Kahlenberg said of Strickland.
“Playing most of the summer and then when I get to college, I’ll be ready to get back out there and go at it again,” Strickland said.
The experience of playing alongside college freshman has been an aspect of American Legion baseball that Carter believes will help him as he plays for Methodist this coming season.
“Playing with college players definitely makes you better so once you get there it’s basically the same thing,” Carter said. “It’s different from high school, way different.”
Hunt, a rising senior, will return to Purnell Swett this fall and Kahlenberg has commended him for his commitment to the team being there every day. Hunt always remembers playing summer baseball, but this summer he has looked to improve his game with heightened competition around him.
“I feel like I will improve playing in the summer to help me get better,” Hunt said. “I’m trying to get better both on offense and defense.”
Whiteville, the No. 3 seed in Area II, started Fairmont’s Tyler Musselwhite on the mound. He will attend Winthrop in the fall as an infielder and, much like the three players from Purnell Swett, has played his first summer on an American Legion team.
“I’m actually surprised how competitive it was,” he said after playing showcase and travel baseball in the past. “I didn’t think it would be that competitive. It’s a different level because they let college kids play.”
After pitching six innings of one-run baseball, he went out to play shortstop for the remainder of the game and had a RBI ground out to put Whiteville up 2-1 in the seventh. In extra innings, he made several tough plays on defense, including turning a double play to get Post 137 out of a jam.
“I’ve been getting time at short and trying to learn something,” Musselwhite said. “This is a state championship team over here and I’m just trying to learn something new and trying to get me prepared (for college).”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.