GARNER — The defending Area I American Legion baseball champions may have a new look and even a new feel to them this season, but the Garner Nationals will rely on a tried-and-true method to defend their title.
The Nationals, formerly Garner Post 232 before a change in sponsorship in the off-season, should have plenty of pitching to contend with the state’s best Legion hitters in the hot summer months.
“We’ve got 10 really good arms and we’re going to lean heavily on our pitching staff,” said Chris Cook, who is in his seventh year as a Legion manager. “We’re going to try to piece some things together (offensively) and score some runs, but we’re going to throw strikes.”
Fuquay-Varina High School’s Jordan Bissette, Kevin Cutler, Brett Daniels, Chandler Jones, Garner’s Brighton Hudson and Saylon Kieft, Grace Christian’s Josh Greene, South Johnston’s Dillon Lee and West Johnston’s Tripp Atkinson will all toe the rubber for Cook.
“I think we’ll be sitting pretty good,” said Bissette, who will be headed to North Carolina State University in the fall. “We’ll have a lot of good players. This a pretty baseball-rich area and we’ve got a lot of good baseball players from around the area.”
Former South Johnston standout pitcher Lane Johnson, who played for Johnston County Post 71 a year ago, provides the Nationals with another quality arm.
Post 71, a longtime rival to the Garner Legion squad, decided to not field a team this season. Johnson has no problem making the switch.
“Not really, it’s just fun,” Johnson said. “Last year I knew a lot of guys on this team and I didn’t feel like it was a rivalry. It was my first year playing so I really didn’t know much about it. This just feels normal.”
Another former Post 71 player, Jack Sherrill, comes over with Johnson and figures to play a big role in the middle infield for the Nationals.
Along with Sherrill (Wingate University), Lucas Scott (Methodist University), Taylor Stephens (Brunswick Community College) and Nick Stuart (Lenoir Community College) are all college freshmen with some experience that Cook will look to in setting the tone at the plate.
“We’re going to have four or five freshmen in our lineup,” Cook said. “We’re going to be fairly old when it comes to hitting.”
Stephens, a key member of last year’s team that finished fourth in the state tournament, feels the new mix of players this year will be key to another deep run in the state tournament.
“Last year was so hectic, especially at the state tournament,” said Stephens, a Garner graduate. “With the guys that we have now, I feel like we can pick up right where we left off and hopefully go further than what we did last year.”
D.J. Burt, an athletic outfielder from Fuquay-Varina who may have his name called in the Major League Baseball draft in the upcoming weeks, Nick Yarbrough, Josh Stikeleather and Ryan Wheeler complete the 18-man roster for the Nationals.
Garner will compete against Apex Post 124, Cary Post 67, Raleigh Post 1, Rocky Mount Post 58 and Roxboro Post 138 in the Area I West Conference.
Despite experiencing roster attrition to the point that it almost prevented Post 232 from competing in the state tournament, Garner’s fourth place finish a year ago is one that Cook and his current crop of players think can realistically be eclipsed this season.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to get lucky to win these things,” Cook said. “Last year we faced a whole lot of adversity.
“I don’t care how many Legion teams there are, I’m worried about mine and I will tell you that I think that we are one of the top Legion teams in this state.”