It always seems to go this way in late June and sometimes even July: nearby rivals Garner and Johnston County are set to meet in American Legion Baseball with a championship on the line.
It’s even a little more notable this time around since both teams (Garner at 12-1 overall, 6-0 division and Johnston County at 8-4, 4-0) carried unblemished records into this week’s action.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Garner manager Chris Cook. “There are good players back from college on both teams. It should be a fun series.”
First-year Johnston County skipper Stephen Nordan sees a similarity between this rivalry and another baseball rivalry that reached new heights in the College World Series last week.
“It’s just a long-standing rivalry,” Nordan said. “Similar to the State-Carolina series where everybody’s familiar (with one another), everybody knows everybody; they’ve played together growing up. So all the guys on each team are familiar with each other. Both teams are well-coached, play hard and it’s a good weekend to be a part of year in and year out. It’s big.”
They exchanged sweeps last season with Johnston County taking the regular season series en route to the No. 1 seeding in the Area I West playoffs. That’s when Garner came alive, sweeping Post 71 in a best-of-three playoff series to advance.
This year’s first meetings between Johnston County and Garner, which start Friday night at Smithfield-Selma High will determine who captures a regular-season pennant and that top playoff seeding.
Both teams have dominated the opposition at times with pitching and defense. Likewise, their offenses have thrived in the closing innings of games.
Garner pitcher Graham Edwards expects to see more of the same this weekend.
“I think we have a good chance to make a deep run in the playoffs,” Edwards said. “I’ve played against a lot of those (JoCo) guys. It’s going to be a pretty good series. I think we’re evenly matched and it’s going to come down to pitching and defense.”
Nordan wants to see his team continue to improve in the series: “We’re still not playing our best baseball. We still lose focus. We struggle to play for nine straight innings. We make mental mistakes that we shouldn’t make as a ball club. We’re definitely going in the right direction but we still haven’t put it together.”
Mike Potter and Michael Held contributed.
Best: 919-524-8895; Twitter: @dclaybest