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Baseball: North Carroll back in South Penn League after year hiatus

North Carroll pitcher Elijah Wingate celebrates a win over Cashtown during the 2016 season. Wingate and the Panthers are back in the South Penn League after a one-year hiatus.
North Carroll pitcher Elijah Wingate celebrates a win over Cashtown during the 2016 season. Wingate and the Panthers are back in the South Penn League after a one-year hiatus. (Ken Koons / Carroll County Times)

North Carroll’s run in the South Penn League, which spanned more than a decade, ended last summer when the Panthers dealt with a numbers problem and had to fold.

Or so it seemed.

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Player-coach Elijah Wingate tried to pass the team off to someone else, but with no one interested he had no choice but to disband. Wingate said he hoped things would be different in 2018, but didn’t give it much thought for several months.

Wingate said he then heard from a few younger players in the North Carroll area who expressed interest in playing.

“I told them, ‘Find me 10 guys and I’ll try to find a few to fill in, and we’ll try and figure it out,’” Wingate said.

Once he heard the necessary number of men were eager to play, Wingate made a few more phone calls. Soon enough, North Carroll’s roster reached more than 20. The Panthers applied for readmission into the league, which has been around for more than 50 years.

SPL commissioner Parker D. Lerew sent an email in late April, just before the season began, stating North Carroll gained a spot in the eight-team league by unanimous vote.

“I was extremely happy to be able to go back and play at North Carroll, and keep North Carroll going,” said manager Brandon March. “We never wanted to leave.”

Older teams can find themselves in trouble, March said, when it comes to fielding enough players to play a full season. That’s what North Carroll ran into last summer — players with multiple commitments, family and work related, couldn’t make baseball enough of a priority.

The Panthers’ youth movement that came to be in the offseason was a big relief, March and Wingate said.

“The commitment is very good right now,” March said.

Wingate, NC’s oldest player at 32, credited March for taking charge of various fundraisers before the season began so the Panthers could come up with enough money to play. Wingate said he estimates it costs between $100-200 per player to fulfill the commitment to the South Penn League, and North Carroll needed new uniforms for 2018.

North Carroll joined the South Penn League in 2005 as an expansion team, and gave Carroll County its first entry in five years. Wingate won the league’s Most Outstanding Pitcher Award in 2007. Two years after that, the Panthers played in the SPL championship series.

They won the league championship in 2013, and made another trip to the finals the following summer.

The South Penn League is a wooden bat, semi-pro organization that abides by Major League Baseball American League rules. It started in 1966, and has featured teams from southern Pennsylvania and Carroll County throughout its history.

Taneytown enjoyed a dominant stretch in the 1990s, winning eight league crowns in 10 years. The Cardinals were one of a few county outfits — the Carroll County Rangers, Union Bridge Braves, and Westminster Elks all fielded teams over the years before North Carroll came along.

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Manchester Valley third baseman Ryan Gerber watches a ground ball into his glove before throwing out a South Carroll runner during a baseball game at Manchester Valley High School on April 28, 2017.
Manchester Valley third baseman Ryan Gerber watches a ground ball into his glove before throwing out a South Carroll runner during a baseball game at Manchester Valley High School on April 28, 2017. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Wingate, his brother Christian, and Jake Myers are part of North Carroll’s veteran core this year, which also includes Zach Neumeister on a part-time basis. The Wingate brothers are part of the Panthers’ pitching rotation, along with Kevin Burnham, Trevor Boring, and Andrew Wilmer.

Todd Wilmer will handle most of the catching duties, Wingate said. The team also has “high hopes,” Wingate said, for 2017 Manchester Valley graduate Ryan Gerber at third base.

Former North Carroll player Connor Risner is batting .429 with a double and a triple, and Todd Wilmer has three RBIs.

North Carroll’s season is only four games long so far, with numerous games in May getting postponed. The Panthers opened with a 10-2 win over Gettysburg but has dropped three in a row since, including a doubleheader sweep Sunday against Biglerville.

North Carroll returns home this Sunday for a doubleheader against first-place Littlestown, the first two of eight consecutive home games for the Panthers.

Being home itself is a great feeling for March and Wingate.

“My goal was never to fold it when I was done playing,” said Wingate, who plans on a few more years on the diamond. “It wasn’t the way we wanted to go out.”

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