Beaufort High School baseball coach Scott Mullen expected one of four possible starters to step in and carry much of the load for the Eagles' pitching staff this season.
The emergence of two quality starters and an experienced spot starter/closer provided Mullen a nice surprise and outlines a clear-cut plan as the Eagles play host to South Aiken tonight to open the Class 4-A playoffs.
The season's final two games are what Mullen wants in the playoffs. Carson Gregory tossed a no-hitter April 20 to defeat Colleton County, and Austin Willis-Green earned the victory Monday against West Ashley, with senior Joel Fickes securing the save.
"That's kind of a template we're going to take into the playoffs," Mullen said. "We're going to ride our two starters as hard as we can and hope that our bats stay alive like they have been."
Beaufort High will compete in four-team Division VI in the double-elimination format. Today's winner will play Saturday against the winner of Sumter-Dutch Fork. The district championship game will be held May 2, with the winner advancing to the Lower State championship series.
Willis-Green is 6-2 with a 2.40 ERA. Gregory is 5-2 with a 1.99 ERA. Mullen said Wednesday he didn't know which right-hander would start tonight. Gregory would be throwing on two additional days rest.
South Aiken, the No. 3 seed from Region 5-AAAA, finished 6-4 in its region, losing out on a tiebreaker to White Knoll for the second seed after the Timberwolves swept the Thoroughbreds during the regular season.
South Aiken began the season ranked No. 5 in the S.C. Baseball Coaches Association poll but have since slipped out. The two higher finishers in Region 5-AAAA are both ranked in the most recent Class 4-A poll, Lexington at No. 1 and White Knoll at No. 10.
Mullen said he didn't know much about the Thoroughbreds but was calling around and hoped to know more by first pitch.
Hilton Head Island High School also opens the postseason at home, hosting North Myrtle Beach tonight at 6 p.m. to start the Class 3-A playoffs in District VIII. The Seahawks, the No. 2 seed from Region 7-AAA, fought their way out of the loser's bracket in 2011 to advance to the Lower State championship bracket.
Hilton Head High coach Chris Wells said he hoped for a better start to the 2012 playoffs.
"We feel like we've put these kids in all the situations they need to be exposed to for this time of year," Wells said. "We try to play our best brand of baseball at the end of the year, and we're playing pretty good right now."
North Myrtle Beach is 16-6 after winning the final 10 games of the regular season. The Seahawks could see a familiar foe on Saturday with a victory tonight.
Bluffton, which earned the No. 4 seed from Region 7-AAA after Battery Creek lost to Lake Marion on Monday, travels to St. James, the fifth-ranked team in Class 3-A in the most recent coaches' poll. St. James earned the district's No. 1 seed as Region 8-AAA champion.
If the Bobcats pull off the upset tonight and the Seahawks win, the rivals would be matched up again. Bluffton swept the regular season series.
Whale Branch will travel to St. John's to open the Class 1-A playoffs. The Warriors (10-9, 10-4 Region 5-A) earned their region's third seed in only their second season.
In 2011, the Warriors won a game at the district level before bowing out. Coach Dean Hawkins feels the Warriors have improved in Year 2, citing improved margins against region power Bamberg-Ehrhardt and a sweep of region foe Allendale-Fairfax.
Malik Fields will start for Whale Branch. Hawkins said he liked Fields' performance in big games this season.
The Warriors coach also said he liked the District VII draw that pits Lamar and Green Sea-Floyds in the other game.
"We're just getting to the point where we feel like we're ready to knock somebody off," Hawkins said.
S.C. High School League Baseball Playoffs
Class 1-A: Whale Branch at St. John's, 6 p.m..
Class 3-A: North Myrtle Beach at Hilton Head High, 6 p.m.; Bluffton at St. James, 6 p.m.
Class 4-A: South Aiken at Beaufort High, 7 p.m.