In only its fourth year of existence, the University of South Carolina Sumter baseball team clinched its second NJCAA Region X regular-season title on with a doubleheader sweep of Florence-Darlington Technical College at Riley Park.
The level of success has not come as a surprise to Fire Ants head coach Tom Fleenor. However, the plethora of players which has helped achieve it has been a surprise.
"It seems like it's a different person contributing all the time," said Fleenor, whose team beat FDTC 9-3 and 4-3 on Sunday after sweeping it in a Saturday twinbill as well. "It's a different guy every day. It seems like it's guys like Daniel Andreu who get big hit after big hit. You don't really expect it from guys like that, guys that didn't play a whole lot in high school, but now he's a big part of an (nationally) 11th-ranked team."
With Sunday's Game 2 and a chance at clinching the region title on the line, sophomore Chris Waters proved his toughness. That example of coming through in the clutch is just one of the many untold stories that several players have had this year.
"He's a sophomore that pitched sparingly as a freshman, but he was on the mound with a chance to clinch it and wanted the ball. I was going to take him out and he would not let me," Fleenor said. "And you know what, he went out there and shut them down. He pitched in both games yesterday and performed well."
Andreu went 4-for-8 on Sunday with four runs scored and a stolen base. Freshman Connor Lewis went 2-for-5 with a two-run home run to put USCS ahead in the clinching game in the fifth.
"We knew Connor Lewis as a freshman would be a good player for us, but I didn't think he would settle in the No. 3 spot in the order, which is generally where you put your best hitter," Fleenor said. "In a weekend where we're trying to clinch the title, he hits two home runs. Lewis was not so much of a surprise, but it's always surprising to see a freshman having that much success."
Sophomore Jake Kirkland had three hits and a run batted in while Nick Berry drove in three runs to help the Fire Ants move to an 18-3 mark in the region and 34-8 overall.
"One of the main reasons (we've had success) is because this is the closest team by far I've ever been on," Kirkland said. "We're all one big family, and on or off the field, we all hang out and care for one another and I think it brings us closer."
Freshman pitcher Tyler Broome earned the win in Game 1 on Sunday, allowing two earned runs while striking out four. Waters was instrumental in both games as he struck out the side in the final inning of the first game and picked up the save in Game 2, working 1 2/3 innings with a strikeout. Sophomore Josh Knab picked up the win in second contest, pitching 5 2/3 innings with five strikeouts.
Looking at the beginning of the season, Fleenor said he knew his team had talent and set its sights on winning the region, but it was just one step in a bigger scheme.
"When you get a group together like this you never know what type of high school program they come from," Fleenor said. "Some of them come from winning programs, some of them come from bottom-of-the-barrel programs, so for them to all get together and have one common goal is impressive.
" And quite honestly, we're nowhere near where we want to be. This is just Step 1 in our goal setting. Now we've got to look forward to being as good as we can for the (Region X) tournament and setting our sights on the (Eastern) district tournament and (NJCAA) World Series. It's a step, but a huge step, and it's one our guys worked very hard to accomplish."
Pitching was something Fleenor was unsure about going into the season because of the staff's youth but to the Fire Ants head coach delight the guys have stepped up and been a surprise.
"Our freshman pitchers, Tyler Smith and Tyler Fletcher, those guys have been amazing. We've said all along we've had young pitching and hopefully they keep the other team under a touchdown and with our offense we've got a chance," the USCS coach said. "They've done above and beyond that. Been a lot of surprise but in the end the success of our team is not a surprise but some of the individual success have been."
Smith said the reason he believes the team has been so successful is because they have a veteran team and can score in a lot of ways.
"It's pretty important to win the region and we expected nothing less," Smith said. "I think we can score a lot of different ways by stealing and bunting. And we have young pitchers that can get the job done."