It’s taken 45 years, but Saturday, Johnny Skillen is finally going to coach in a World Series game.
Skillen and Wingstop kick off the Dixie Majors Baseball World Series against Hope Mills, N.C., at 1 p.m. Central at Charleston Southern University in North Charleston, S.C.
Skillen’s path to the World Series has been a long, winding one. He began coaching Little League before moving on to Senior Babe Ruth. Skillen eventually made the move to Junior Babe Ruth before switching back to the senior division. Just two years ago, he made the transition to Dixie Baseball.
In fact, Skillen wouldn’t even be in the World Series this year if it weren’t for some fortunate circumstances. Wingstop lost the Dixie state tournament championship game to Camden. However, Camden was not going to have enough players to participate in the World Series, so they passed the torch for Arkansas on to Skillen and Wingstop.
Come Saturday, it will have been nine days since Wingstop has played in a baseball game. That game on July 18 against the Pine Bluff Braves semi-pro team is the only game Wingstop has played since its loss to Camden.
“We’ve practiced a lot since then,” Skillen said regarding the game against the Braves. “But, you can practice all you want.
“There is nothing you can do to simulate live pitching.”
Despite the time off, Skillen thinks it shouldn’t take his hitters long to get reacclimated.
“I feel like it will take one time through the order,” Skillen said. “That’s usually how long it takes.
“After that, they’re usually fine.”
Skillen thinks his offense has the versatility needed to compete with anyone.
“We can manufacture runs, for sure,” Skillen said. “We’ve got about four kids who can just fly, but we’ve also got three or four guys who can hit the home run, too.”
His hitters might be coming off a long layoff but Skillen thinks his team’s defense will be the key to Wingstop’s success, especially in a tournament where he says, “Nobody knows anything about anybody.”
On Saturday, that defense will be behind Watson Chapel graduate Zach Bradford.
Bradford is a left-hander who is heading into his sophomore season with the Northern Oklahoma College Jets and played with the East Texas Canes in the Alaska Airlines Tournament Tour earlier this month.
“He’s got several good pitches,” Skillen said of Bradford. “He’s got a good fastball and good change-up.
“I think we had him at 88 (mph) on the gun.”
When it comes to number of wins needed to reach the championship, Skillen, Bradford, and the rest of the Wingstop team find themselves in the tougher half of the 12-team bracket. Those in Wingstop’s half of the bracket must win four winner’s bracket games just to reach the championship, while those in the other half need to only win three games.
Asked about his team’s chances, Skillen was cautiously optimistic.
“To be honest, I just hope and pray we win at least two ballgames,” Skillen said. “I would, obviously, love to win it all, but Camden came (to the World Series) last year and went two (losses) and out.
“I want to improve on that.”
Even if his team doesn’t come home with a championship, or even improve on what Camden did, Skillen thinks the experience will be important for next season.
“We return all but four players from this team,” Skillen said. “As much as I want them to do well, I hope it can serve as a learning experience.
“Hopefully, they can, at least, see what (the World Series) is all about.”
Dixie Majors World Series
• Wingstop (Pine Bluff) vs. Hope Mills, N.C., 1 p.m. Central today, at Charleston Southern University, North Charleston, S.C.
• Winner plays Heartland/Avon Park, Fla. or McNairy County, Tenn., at 2 p.m. Sunday at Collins Park; losers play at 11:30 a.m. Sunday at Charleston Southern
• Other teams in World Series: Opp, Ala.; West Georgia; Terrebonne Parish, La.; Laurel-Jones County, Miss.; Hilton Head, S.C.; North Charleston; Paris, Texas; South Boston, Va.