With his Norman Showcase Academy travel baseball team struggling in the summer months, coach Michael House was faced with a difficult decision.
The team (comprised of several junior varsity Fighting Scots) found itself playing against older competition because of tournament scheduling which resulted in a 4-13 record and a slew of questions regarding the squad’s future.
The rough start to their travel ball season resulted in House opting to reform his squad under the 16U ‘Area Stars’ brand in the fall. And that decision combined with a reunion of sorts from championship years’ past ended the season on a high note for all involved.
“When we went against the older players during the summer, it was difficult because we hung in every one of those games but lost the majority of them, which can destroy a kid’s confidence,” House said. “It’s like a JV squad taking on a varsity squad, but getting graded on the same scale as the older guys. But when we became the Area Stars back in September, it kind of felt like old times again when these kids got back together and found success.”
For a period of nearly four years, the vast majority of the Area Stars (including current Scots’ H.B. Stone, Jonathan Bowling, Logan House, Cody Stewart, Cross Holfert, Sam Grey and Ben Utter) reach unparalleled heights as members of the ‘Elite Baseball Program’. From middle school all the way to their current high school careers, the Elite Baseball Program compiled a 108-39 record and were at one point recognized by the USSSA (United States Specialty Sports Association) as the number one-ranked travel baseball team in the nation. The team also played ‘60/90’ baseball since the age of 12, which has players compete from high school-regulation 60-foot pitcher’s mounds and 90-foot base pads.
Due to various obligations, the Area Stars that suited up this fall were without many of those players. Former Elite Baseball alumni who weren’t a part of the Stars included Holfert and Utter because of their commitment to Fighting Scots football and Gray, who was a member of the highly-touted Evoshield Canes travel ball organization.
But the core of the team remained intact nonetheless, and in the final tournament of the year which occurred Oct. 20, the Area Stars came within a hair’s breadth of another championship to add to their mantle.
The tournament, sponsored by Straight 9 Sports, took place at the Cary Academy in Cary, N.C. and featured several top-tier teams from around the Carolinas.
In the first game of the tournament, the Area Stars would defeat the Carolina Stars 6-4 based on solid performances from Terry Sanford’s Sam Zahran and Stone, who was 1-2 from the plate and took the mound in a closer’s role.
The Stars’ most hotly-contested game came in the second round of the tournament against the Rebels, which was tied 6-6 heading into the seventh and deciding inning. Though the game saw solid offensive production from the Area Stars (Zahran and House both went 2-3 from the plate), the winning run would be scored on a suicide squeeze initiated by Utter, who rejoined his former teammates on Sunday Oct. 21 to assume first baseman duties. The squeeze play scored Ryan Mayers (a current member of the Lumberton Pirates and another Elite Baseball alumni) from third base.
“I’ve had Ben do that countless times over the years, ever since my son Logan and him played together in the machine pitch league at the age of 7,” House said. “You have to learn to be selfless in baseball, and that’s something I’ve tried to teach my guys ever since I started coaching them.”
In their game against the hometown Cary Chargers, the Stars found themselves clicking in all facets to earn the 16-1 blowout. On the mound for the Stars was House, who pitched a one-hit complete game with five strikeouts, and the team combined for 20 hits including a 10-run fifth inning.
However, the Stars would fall short in the championship game of the tournament, losing 5-2 to the Carolina Indians to finish the tournament with a 3-1 record.
For many of the Area Stars, the Oct. 20 weekend signaled the end of their travel baseball schedule until Spring when the Fighting Scots once again take the field. But according to House, the Stars’ brief run in September and October caught lightning in a bottle, and the coach hopes that his team will give it one last go-round next year.
“I hope it rekindled their dreams in a way,” House said. “When kids are 12 years old, it’s easy to sell them on dreams of being a big-time baseball player, but as they get older their minds begin to wander. But we had that old feeling again in that last tournament, and I’d like to see what we can do with one last opportunity.”