Every baseball-loving kid grows up imagining the same situation.
Bottom of the ninth, two out, bases-loaded, full count.
Every kid, that is, except for Mat Clark. It's too unrealistic. Clark would never allow three batters to reach in the first place.
The left-handed ace of a Hilton Head Island High School baseball team that advanced to a district championship game, Clark again separated himself from the pack among area pitchers. That excellence has earned him the attention of coaches across the state, who named him to the all-state team.
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Clark is also The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet's All-Area Baseball Player of the Year after going 6-1 for the Seahawks, with a .058 earned run average over 53 2-3 innings. He walked just four batters, striking out 82.
"We talk all the time about throwing downhill and keeping the ball low in the strike zone," coach Blair Carson said. "Mat does that better than any kid I've seen his age. He has two really good offspeed pitches. He can throw that in any count."
Clark's success is a product of repetition, routine and hard work. His other-worldly control was developed over many bullpen sessions, and like many elite athletes, he's constantly looking for ways to get even better. This summer, Clark has been working on sharpening his change-up, adding another off-speed tool to his already impressive arsenal.
"It's going pretty good," Clark said. "It should be good for next season."
That's bad news for area hitters.
Carson hesitates at first when asked to compare Clark to a major league pitcher. If his progress continues unimpeded, Clark will almost certainly be drafted in two years when eligible, but Clark doesn't need any more expectations to be leveled on him. After thinking, Carson finally settled on Clayton Kershaw, the two-time Cy Young award-winning left-hander for the Dodgers. Clark may not have the velocity, Carson says, but his competitive, no-nonsense approach on the mound and his quiet, encouraging demeanor off it remind him of the ace.
"Baseball has a way of humbling you, no matter what," Carson said. "I think he takes the mindset to the mound every day that I'm going to take it one out at a time."
Clark said he doesn't let expectations go to his head -- "I try really not to pay attention to it" -- not even after two outstanding seasons and the promise of more to come. In fact, when asked whether he felt like his performance was better this year, Clark demurred.
"It's hard to say," Clark said. "Last year, I was more off-speed, and I don't think that was too good for me going on. This year it was more fastballs."
Whatever the case, you can be sure that Clark will be ready, new-and-improved, to pick up the ball for Hilton Head Island High's opener next year.
Only this time, with a changeup.
CARSON NAMED COACH OF YEAR
Hilton Head Island High hasn't hit a home run for two years.
Carson is well-aware of the fact, but knowing that makes the job he has done with the Seahawks even more impressive. His team, sapped of power and struck by a crucial injury early in the season, always found a way to win. It wasn't exactly pretty and certainly not intimidating, but pitching and defense carried the day as the Seahawks advanced to the district championship before losing to eventual Lower State champion Hartsville.
"I think we met our expectations," Carson said. "A lot of guys were real selfless in the fact that they had to play out of position."
This only happened because star catcher Brandon Johnson went down with a torn labrum after only a handful of games. Carson was forced to reshuffle the deck and move people out of their positional comfort zones.
"We knew we were strong pitching wise and defensively," Carson said. "If you're strong there, you're in every game. You just have to find a way to scratch across a few runs."
Having all-state pitcher Mat Clark leading the way certainly helped. Clark said Carson's experience as a player helps the team buy into his strategies as a manager.
"I think the fact that he played pro baseball definitely helps a lot because he knows how we play," Clark said.
It all adds up to an award-winning formula.
"A lot of guys were real selfless," Carson said. "I'm thankful to have a bunch of guys like Mat that would do whatever it takes to win a ballgame and do it without complaining."
2014 The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet All-Area Baseball TeamPOY: Mat Clark, Hilton Head Island High
COY: Blair Carson, Hilton Head Island High
P- Mat Clark, Hilton Head Island High
Stats: 54.2 IP, 6-1, .64 ERA, 4 BB, 81 K
Comment: Seahawks ace was a Class 3-A all-state selection
P - Bradley Brown, Beaufort High
Stats: 46.2 IP, 5-2, 31 K, 12 BB, 1.5 ERA
Comment: All-region in 8-AAAA and nominated for North-South game
P - Tyler Fox, Hilton Head Prep
Stats: 7-0, 3 saves
Comment: Two-way player who began the season in the bullpen but emerged as an ace for coach Lew Kent. Region 3 player of the year.
P - Chance Murphy, Bluffton
Stats: (No stats available)
Comment: North-South selection was the Bobcats' ace
C - Evan Duncan, Thomas Heyward
Stats: .320 avg., 18 RBIs, .667 CS%
Comment: Senior caught two of three stealing and only allowed two passed balls
INF - Brady Cormier, Beaufort High
Stats: .357 avg., 14 RBIs, HR, 5 2B
Comment: All-Region 8-AAAA pick solidified the middle at shortstop
INF - Luke Higgs, Hilton Head Christian
Stats: .444 avg., 13 RBIs, , .569 OBP
Comment: A SCISAA North-South and all-region selection
INF - Zach Mahan, Battery Creek
Stats: .369 avg., 21 RBIs, 76.2 IP, 7-6, 69 K, 2.83 ERA
Comment: All-Region 6-AA selection pitched better than his record and provided a solid bat
INF - John Sheehan, Hilton Head Prep
Stats: .326 avg., 7 SB, 10 RBIs
Comment: A defensive standout at shortstop; at the plate, struck out just once all season
OF - Andrew Dill, Hilton Head Island High
Stats: .385 avg., 23 RBIs, 12 2B, 10 SB
Comment: All-region selection also threw 33 innings as the Seahawks' No. 2 pitcher
OF - DeAnthony Moore, Battery Creek
Stats: .328 avg., 11 RBIs, 13 R, 2 3B, 5 SB
Comment: All-Region 6-AA a versatile player for Dolphins
OF - Carson Gregory, Beaufort High
Stats: .315 avg., HR, 30.1 IP, 30 K, 10 BB, 2.31 ERA
Comment: Winthrop-bound senior provided pop in the lineup in addition to a strong arm
UTIL - Ryan Green, Whale Branch
Stats: .390 avg., 22 SB, 89 K pitching
Comment: Freshman was an all-region selection for a second time and threw three no-hitters
UTIL - Conner Driscoll, Thomas Heyward
Stats: .460 avg., .597 OBP, 19 RBIs, HR, 17 IP, 3-0, 2 S, 19 K
Comment: Led the Rebels in almost every batting category
Battery Creek: INF William Howell, INF Craig Capano, OF Michael Jennings
Beaufort High: P Andrew Smyth, OF Jordan Clegg, 1B Mattison Pike
Bluffton: C Wes Gillespie
Hilton Head High: INF Tommy Cooper, OF Matt Rozelle, C Michael Perez
Hilton Head Christian: Reese Dolynuk, Alex Cooler
Hilton Head Prep: Randy Young, Greg Warren, Kevin Campbell
Ridgeland-Hardeeville: INF Ransom Dunham, INF Ashawn Kemp, INF Nick Russell
Thomas Heyward Academy: Blake Bannon, Seth Jones, Anthony Sanders
Whale Branch: INF Marshal Daise, Braylon Harrison, Jordan Wright