Knights going for a three-peat

DUBLIN — With two straight Dixie Pre-Majors state titles and two trips to the Dixie Pre-Majors World Series in his back pocket, West Bladen baseball coach Kim Cain will lead the Knights toward a three-peat of both starting Saturday.

“We’ll take each game one at a time, but our overall goal is to be in Alabama for the World Series,” Cain said. “A lot of our players have been (to the World Series) before, so that kind of experience can be a big advantage for us.”

Cain won’t know Friday who the other competitors will be for a state title and berth in the World Series, but he has some ideas.

“I’ve heard Fayetteville may put a team in,” he said, ” and I wouldn’t be surprised if Columbus, Brunswick and Duplin counties had teams.”

West Bladen finished the Dixie Pre-Majors regular summer season with a 13-5 record. The Knights won seven of their last eight games, including three straight to win the conference tournament.

That kind of finish can give a coach some confidence, but Cain knows what lies ahead.

“We’ve improved a lot since the beginning of the summer, but we’re going to see the best pitching in the state tournament and, if we make it, in the World Series that we’ve seen all year,” Cain said. “Some of the kids seemed to have matured this summer — getting bigger, stronger, better — and that’s nice to see.”

Cain points to his team’s pitching and defense as the Knights’ strengths going into the state tournament. West Bladen played nearly flawless defense in the conference tournament, and Cain has a stable of pitchers — including Chandler Lennon, Trent West and Jeremy Hunt — who have been on the mound in state and World Series games.

“The pitching has really started to come around,” Cain said. “When we throw strikes, we’re as good as anyone.”

If there is an area where Cain hopes to see some improvement, it’s at the plate.

“We started to hit the ball better in the conference tournament, but it still needs to keep getting better,” he said. “We’re pretty improved in all aspects of the game, but we’ll need to work on our hitting.”

Cain said it would be difficult to compare this year’s team with the two previous World Series teams, but did say he thought the pitching is as good this season.

“Again, throwing strikes is the key, and if we do that we have as good a pitching staff as we’ve had,” Cain said. “Obviously we don’t have players like Colby McLean behind the plate, Michael Pastore on the infield and Trevor Lesane in center — and those guys hit the ball well for us — but I think we’ve filled the holes pretty well.”

In the past two summer seasons, the Knights have gone 6-1 in the state tournament but 1-4 in the World Series. In 2013, West Bladen traveled to the eight-team World Series in Guntersville, Ala., and lost two straight heartbreakers — 2-1 to Georgia in extra innings and 3-0 to Florida. In 2014, the Knights went to the World Series in Chipley, Fla., and got a win before bowing out — losing to South Carolina in the opener, 10-0; getting revenge on Georgia, 15-0; then losing to Arkansas in a tough elimination game, 3-2.

The World Series returns to Guntersville, Ala., this year.

“It wouldn’t have taken much in a few of those games to get a different outcome,” Cain said. “But the experience is still invaluable.”

He added that simply playing as much as they can has helped along the way. Since Cain took over a West Bladen team that finished 2-22 in 2010, the Knights have seen marked improvement on the diamond that has led them to the playoffs over the past couple of seasons.

“That’s the reason we do it (play through the summer,” Cain said. It’s helped us a lot. Most of these kids end up playing about 50 games between school and summer ball — a few will even play travel ball on weekends and I hope to see some play fall ball when it starts.

“It all pays dividends down the road,” he added.

The road to the first dividend this season begins Saturday.

W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.