N.C. state American Legion baseball tournament didn’t start until 2000 but it’s had lots of history and future MLB stars
By Richard Walker
The N.C. American Legion state tournament only began in 2000 but has seen all sorts of drama, history and spectacular performances.
That includes a 2006 state final featuring two future major leaguers – Morehead City’s Lonnie Chisenhall and Caldwell County’s Madison Bumgarner.
Bumgarner would later turn in one of the best pitching performances in major league history during the 2014 playoffs while leading the San Francisco Giants to the 2014 World Series title.
A left-handed pitcher, Bumgarner had four victories and one save and pitched 52 2-3 innings in the postseason. For his efforts, Bumgarner was selected as World Series MVP, given the Babe Ruth Award for postseason MVP, the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.
It started with a four-hit shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Wild Card game.
After losing 4-1 to the Washington Nationals in Game 3 of the National League Division Series the Giants would win three games to one, Bumgarner was named National League Championship Series MVP following two impressive starts in a 4-1 series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Then in a 4-3 win over the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 World Series, Bumgarner had a 2-0 record with one save a 0.43 ERA in three appearances. The last appearance – five scoreless innings of relief – came on two days rest and wrapped up the Giants’ third title in five seasons.
“When I saw those World Series games when Madison Bumgarner came out of the bullpen like that, the first thing that came to my mind was American Legion baseball,” said Cherryville Post 100 Legion coach Bobby Reynolds, whose teams won four of seven games against Caldwell County when Bumgarner pitched for Post 29 from 2004 to 2006. “It was that ‘doing-everything-for-the-team-to-win’ mentality that I saw in the past with (Cherryville pitchers like) Chris Mason or Ralph Roberts. And Madison did that for the sole purpose of winning the World Series.”
Interestingly enough, some criticized Bumgarner for NOT pitching on short rest in the N.C. state Legion tournament in High Point in 2006.
Bumgarner’s Caldwell County coach Gary Hamby would like to set that record straight.
In fact, Hamby thinks his reluctance to follow through on a decision he wanted to make would’ve made Bumgarner’s decision a moot point.
From 1928 to 1999, N.C. Legion officials determined their state champion through one-game, best-of-three, best-of-five or best-of-seven title series formats.
That changed in 2000 when a state tournament began.
Though the first tournament had nine teams, every other tournament has been an eight-team event designed to pit the top two teams from each of the state’s four areas in a double-elimination or pool play format to determine a champion to send on to national regional tournament competition.
The host team gets an automatic berth and in years in which one of the four areas has declined to make a bid to host the event, it’s tournament bid could be affected.
In 2006 when the event was played at High Point’s Finch Field, it was one of the most star-studded in its history as eventual major leaguers Bumgarner, Kannapolis’ Kyle Seager, Pitt County’s Alex White and Morehead City’s Lonnie Chisenhall led their teams into the tournament.
Morehead City had won Area II, Kannapolis Area III and Caldwell County Area IV with defending state champion Pitt County finishing as the Area I runner-up to Garner.
Caldwell County got off to a fast start of the tournament, beating Fayetteville 10-4, Garner 4-1 and Kannapolis 11-10 to earn a day off as the last remaining unbeaten team. Bumgarner struck out seven in seven innings and had two hits, including a home run, and three RBIs in the opening day win over Fayetteville.
Meanwhile, Morehead City and Pitt County lost 12-inning heartbreakers on opening day – Pineville edged Morehead City 4-3 and Kannapolis slipped past Pitt County 3-2.
Of the losses, the most damaging was to Pitt County, as White struck out 16 with one walk in 10 innings but got no decision. (White would go on to pitch on three straight College World Series teams at the University of North Carolina from 2007 to 2009 before signing with the Cleveland Indians after being a 2009 first-round draft pick. He would spend two seasons in the major leagues.)
With Chisenhall and future N.C. State outfielder Drew Poulk leading the way, Morehead City would begin its charge to a state title.
Post 46 eliminated Pitt County 7-6, Garner 8-7 in 12 innings, Pineville 5-3 and Kannapolis 14-4 in 8 innings in the loser’s bracket to reach the state championship game. Morehead City would have to beat Caldwell County twice on the final day to win the state title.
Chisenhall’s walkoff home run – his third of the game – gave Post 46 its win over Garner in a contest where he also was the winning pitcher.
And rumors were starting to circulate that Bumgarner would soon be leaving the Caldwell County team in order to play in another tournament.
“Our final game in the state tournament was on a Tuesday night,” Hamby said. “And he was scheduled to pitch in a major league-sponsored event in Wilmington that weekend. And his advisor felt like it was very important that he made a showing there.”
So when Caldwell County lined up to play Morehead City needing to win one of two potential games, Hamby knew it was unlikely his future major league star would be available to pitch.
Nonetheless, Hamby was confident – and had good reason to be.
Jimmy Messer, a 2008 University of North Carolina signee, was to start that day for Post 29. He entered the tournament with an 8-1 record and 1.75 ERA.
“And he had handled Chisenhall very well that day,” Hamby said. “Then Chisenhall came up in the ninth inning with two outs and runners on first and second and the kid at first base was taking a lead that was just unreal.
“We had a pickoff play we could use. I’m thinking, ‘Chisenhall is at the plate and we can pick this kid off.’ But I was a little afraid we might throw it away. I remember saying to (pitching) coach (Brandon) Banks, ‘I’m going to call the pick off. We can pick this kid off.’ Then I thought, ‘We can wait.’
“He had one strike on him and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to call it now.’ And I looked at Banks and said, ‘I’m going to call it the next pitch.’ And I froze, didn’t call it and Chisenhall hits it over the centerfield fence. And we ultimately lose the game.
“That’s one that I spring up in bed at night over. If I’d have just called that pickoff and we didn’t throw it away, we would have a chance to pick him off first base.”
Morehead City’s 7-4 victory forced a winner-take-all finale – and Hamby discussed Bumgarner’s role in thet game directly with Bumgarner. Bumgarner consulted with his advisor who said he could pitch two innings.
“In between games, Madison had no problem with pitching,” Hamby said. “There was no selfishness there. Nobody would ever call him selfish. He was a great team player. He did a lot of things that people will never know about as a leader and an integral part of a team.
“But he was following instruction from people that he allowed to guide him. And they were trying to make the right decisions for him based on an apparent future in the major leagues that they hoped would be successful. And it’s certainly turned out that way.
“When he came back and told he could go two innings, the thought was there that if we can ever get the lead midway or late in the game. Maybe he’d go two or even three and close it out. But we never could get on top.
“Look at him now. How can you argue with his decision?”
With the momentum of its late-game rally in the first contest, Chisenhall led off the second game with a double and Morehead City roared ahead with five runs in the top of the first inning.
Caldwell County would stage a rally of its own before losing 7-6 in the championship game. Post 29’s final run came when Bumgarner led off the bottom of the ninth inning with his fourth home run of the tournament. But Poulk got the final three outs for a save and finish Morehead City’s title-winning comeback.
“I’d have loved to had him out there,” Hamby said of Bumgarner not pitching. “But there was not any contention about it – or it never has been in my mind.
“I’ve certainly never, ever said anything or felt any negativity about him not pitching in that game – or from that day. I feel like that he would have done anything that he could to help our team or what our team needed to win a state championship. I think he was prevented from it by advice from the people and that they agreed to follow that advice.
“I have nothing but the utmost respect for him being there and contributing what he did – and grateful for having the chance to have coached him for three years.”
Bumgarner (2007) and Chisenhall (2008) would go on to become first-round major league draft picks – and both have enjoyed solid pro careers.
Morehead City coach Robby Lasater thought there was no way any team could pull off what his Area IV champions did.
“When you lose on Friday, you pretty much can’t do it,” Lasater told the Lexington Dispatch after winning the 2006 title. “It was just unbelievable.”
Caldwell County was much happier with the result of the inaugural tournament it hosted at M.S. Deal Stadium in Granite Falls in 2000.
After losing the Area IV championship series three games to one to rival Cherryville, Post 29 went 4-0 in the state tournament, beating Cherryville in the winner’s bracket final by an 8-4 score then edging Rowan County 3-2 in the championship game.
“They were a bunch of no-names with Marc (Church) as the leader,” Hamby said. “The team had no real stars. It was just a solid and unified team. The togetherness and camaraderie and the brotherhood that was there was our strength. The character was just unbelieveable.”
Wilmington, Cherryville and Rowan County have been the most frequent participants in the first 20 years of the event with 13, 11 and 11 appearances, respectively.
Wilmington has claimed tournament titles in 2012, 2013, 2018 and 2019, Rowan County in 2002, 2009, 2015 and 2016 and Cherryville in 2003, 2007 and 2011.
Cherryville’s 2003 and 2011 title runs were led by dominating pitchers Chris Mason and Drew Reynolds when each was in the midst of long scoreless innings streaks.
Mason had 47 2-3 innings of scoreless baseball from the Area IV playoffs until the 2003 American Legion World Series in Bartlesville, Okla., as Post 100 would finish as runner-up.
And Reynolds 35 innings of scoreless baseball from the Area IV playoffs until the 9-1 state tournament championship game victory over Wayne County.
Wilmington (30-21), Cherryville (30-17) and Rowan County (28-15) also have the best records in the event.
Other champions have been Shelby (2001 and 2014), Garner (2004), Pitt County (2005), Morehead City (2006), Randolph County (2008 and 2017) and Kernersville (2010); Garner’s 2004 title was later vacated by N.C. Legion officials.
N.C. Area IV has been the winningest area with a 94-75 record and six championships. Area III is close behind with a 87-72 record and seven titles. Area II is 61-68 with five championships and and Area I is 56-78 with two titles.
Nine teams have gone unbeaten in the tournament – Caldwell (4-0) in 2000, Shelby (4-0) in 2001, Rowan County (4-0) in 2002, Cherryville (4-0) in 2003, Cherryville (5-0) in 2011, Wilmington (5-0) in 2012, Rowan County (5-0) in 2015 and 2016 and Randolph County (5-0) in 2017.
And three first-day losers have rallied back to win their titles – Pitt County in 2005, Morehead City in 2006 and Kernersville in 2010.
N.C. American Legion state tournament championship games:
2000 Caldwell County 7, Rowan County 3
2001 Shelby 4, Garner 3, 12 innings
2002 Rowan County 7, Wayne County 5
2003 Cherryville 7, Pineville 3
2004 Garner 4, Caldwell County 0 (title was vacated February 2005)
2005 Pitt County-39 4, Lexington 2
2006 Morehead City 7, Caldwell County 6
2007 Cherryville 6, Wayne County 1
2008 Randolph County 7, Cherryville 4
2009 Rowan County 5, Shelby 3
2010 Kernersville 16, Whiteville 2 (7 innings)
2011 Cherryville 9, Wayne County 1
2012 Wilmington 11, Cherryville 1 (8 innings)
2013 Wilmington 3, Kernersville 2
2014 Shelby 7, Gaston Braves 2
2015 Rowan County 4, High Point 3
2016 Rowan County 3, Union County 2
2017 Randolph County 16, Wilmington 2 (7 innings)
2018 Wilmington 8, Shelby 3
2019 Wilmington 11, Fuquay-Varina 5
State tournament MVPs
2000 Marc Church, Caldwell County
2001 Jason Gold, Shelby
2002 Cal Hayes, Rowan County
2003 Chris Mason, Cherryville
2004 Leif Baker, Garner
2005 Josh Ashton, Pitt County-39
2006 Lonnie Chisenhall, Morehead City
2007 Chris Henderson, Cherryville
2008 Ethan Marsh, Randolph County
2009 Trey Holmes, Rowan County
2010 Brandon Harrison, Kernersville
2011 Trey Drewery, Cherryville
2012 Christian Wolfe and Jack Faircloth, Wilmington
2013 Joe O’Donnell, Wilmington
2014 Ethan Carpenter, Shelby
2015 Riley Myers, Rowan County
2016 John Owen, Rowan County
2017 Dawson Painter, Randolph County
2018 Price King, Wilmington
2019 Jac Croom and Max Hildreth, Wilmington