A team of nine- and 10-year-old budding diamond stars have already made history representing Bluffton. Now, the Bluffton American Minors All-Stars are looking to take home a World Series title.
The team was victorious in a weeklong battle to take home the state title earlier this month – the second straight title under head coach Nick Carpenter and the first-ever age group state titles for the town. Now, the crew of 12 All-Stars head to Laurel, Miss., to play in the Dixie Youth Baseball World Series, beginning with a border showdown with Georgia on Aug. 7.
“It’s been a real special run here, these kids have worked so hard, come together after competing against each other in 2019,” said Carpenter, a long-time Marine who is coaching in a sling after surgery to correct a chronic arm nerve injury.
The 2021 team is a combining of two squads that competed against each other in 2019. Carpenter coached the Bluffton American 8-and-under Double-A division team that won the district and state tourney and went to the World Series, while Justin Jarrett coached the Bluffton National squad that finished second in districts and was final four in the state tourney.
The two coaches combined resources and founded two different travel ball teams to give the kids more chances to play in a tournament atmosphere ahead of Dixie Youth season play.
“We’ve had about 25 to 30 kids out for travel ball and I think that’s really made a difference in bringing out these kids’ talents and determination,” Carpenter said.
His son, Nicholas, is one of four current players on the Triple-A division 2021 team that played in the World Series in 2019 alongside Finn Boyles, Noah Sepulveda and Zach Szypczak.
“It was incredible to get there in 2019. I’m just so proud of my teammates for getting us back here,” said the younger Carpenter after a recent practice. “It was rough missing the year waiting it out due to COVID, but we all kept focused and kept working.”
The Minors crew started 9-0 in their tourney run. They beat Colleton and Hilton Head once each and won two games against the Bluffton National team to take the district title on June 20. The Minors began States by outscoring Greenwood, Sumter and Gregg Park by a combined 30-1 before the first of an epic trilogy against a valiant Moncks Corner crew.
Bluffton won the first battle, 8-7, and then downed Midland, 10-3, to get to the title matchup, where Moncks Corner would need to beat Bluffton twice to dethrone the champs. In the first game on July 15, the challengers came out blazing in a 13-2 win that handed Bluffton their first loss of their summer run.
The team regrouped after the morning defeat and stayed focus on the fundamentals and teamwork that brought them to the precipice of a title.
“That was a tough spot, but a great learning moment for all the kids and they rose to the challenge,” the coach said of his squad’s resilience in the third tilt with the Moncks Corner crew, a 7-5 Bluffton win to earn the state championship trophy.
“We got nervous, that was a close game. That was a really good team, they played a lot of small ball, just a lot of speed and good hits, but we were ready,” said the veteran Szypczak, who splits time pitching and playing first base with Nic Farrugia.
Even more impressive than the on-field victory was that Bluffton earned the state tournament’s Sportsmanship Award, given to the team whose players best exhibit qualities of respectful competitiveness.
“It’s one thing we’ve drilled home with the kids and I’m super proud of them for that. They represent Bluffton well on all fronts,” said coach Carpenter, who credits Jarrett for helping to push sportsmanship above all.
“I mean, we want to win but we don’t want to crush them. We want them all to keep playing baseball and having fun,” said second baseman Caleb Malphrus, summing up the Minors’ overall spirit.
His teammates we talked to at a recent practice – Szypczak, Charlie Nelson, Truman Jarrett, the junior Carpenter and Farrugia – all said sportsmanship and playing for each other were the most important and best parts of their current run together.
“To get to jump on each other after, that was just the ultimate,” said outfielder Nelson, a comment earning collective smiles of agreement from the crew. “To know we earned that by playing as a team, it’s a great feeling.”
When asked which among them was the best player, none of these ballers bit on the trick question.
“We’re all great,” said Farrugia.
The group all agreed that dumping a big water jug on Coach Carpenter after the States win was a huge prize.
“Man, we got him so good. We dumped two jugs on him,” said a smiling Farrugia.
“It was a crazy combo, but we pulled it off. He was soaked,” Jarrett said. “We get to shave his head if we win in Mississippi.”
Baseball runs deep in the family of all these kids in the parent-run Bluffton Youth Sports program. Each of the boys agreed when Szypczak said, “I wanted to follow in my Dad’s footsteps and I fell in love with the game.”
Carpenter said one key addition was recent Northern transplant Henry Numssen, who shared starting pitching duties with Boyles and Farrugia for much of the current run. Carpenter, Szypczak, Nelson and Austin Broene are the team’s bullpen aces.
The championship run has meant a lot of sacrifices for parents and players – including up to a week at a time on the road in hotels and a long upcoming road trip to Mississippi.
For their part, the kids are unfazed by the trips, reveling in the team-building time around the pool table.
“Playing pool, that’s been so fun. The hotels have been the best,” said Nelson, earning nods from his teammates.
Bluffton will be joined by another local team in Laurel, as the Hilton Head Island 12-and-under All-Stars took their state title as well. The two teams scrimmaged each other July 31.
“It just speaks volumes about the work we’re putting in with the kids in the Lowcountry,” Carpenter said of an unprecedented two area teams headed to represent South Carolina.
The Minors have received fundraising support from local businesses and fans have started a GoFundMe campaign to help offset what could be up to $15,000 in expenses if the team completes their goal of a World Series title beginning Aug. 7. To donate, visit gofund.me/6756eecd.
“The support from the community has been humbling and overwhelming. We’re trying to bring this home for the town,” Coach Carpenter said.
Szypczak seconded that love of Bluffton and gratitude for getting to play baseball with his friends after a couple of summers unlike any of these kids have ever known.
“We know there are a lot of kids across the country still in lockdown or under restrictions that can’t play,” he said, “so we’re just feeling lucky and thankful to be playing and really appreciating this moment.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.