HAMLET — Four years before Hamlet merged with Ellerbe, Rockingham and Rohanen to become what is now known as Richmond Senior High School, George Whitfield and the Red Rams baseball team made a historic postseason run.
An eight-game journey that featured three shutout wins and a come-from-behind victory over Dunn in the Southeastern Conference title game ended with Hamlet defeating now-defunct Bowman (Wadesboro) two games to one to claim the 1968 NCHSAA 3A State Championship — the first and only state title in the school’s history.
Whitfield, who was head coach, and the 22 players — from both the school and American Legion teams — will celebrate the 50th reunion of their accomplishment on Friday, May 18, at 6:30 p.m. at The Ballroom in downtown Hamlet.
There will be a dinner, the former players will give updates on their lives and Whitfield says he has some awards to give out, which includes a “beautiful glass ball” that will be presented inside of a wooden case.
“I’m looking forward to seeing all the guys. Some of them I haven’t seen in quite a while,” Whitfield said. “A lot of them are coming from a pretty good distance to be here … so that tells you want it means to them.”
“It was very special,” Whitfield added.
Half a century later, Whitfield still remembers what it was like to coach that team. It was his first year at Hamlet.
Whitfield had come over from Goldsboro High, where he coached for nine seasons, in the summer of 1967 and inherited the squad from former skipper Carson Oldham, who was leaving the coaching world to focus on being the school’s principal.
He would quickly realize the boys had been working hard to make Hamlet a serious 3A contender. The team opened American Legion play — the summer prior to the 1968 school year — with a 3-1 win over defending national champions Colonial Heights (Virginia) and then made it all the way to the Legion championship game before falling to Asheboro.
There was no fall-off once the school season began, as the Red Rams held 12 of their opponents to one run or less, won all six major rivalry games — four wins against Rockingham and two over Scotland — and finished with a 22-3 overall record.
“They were just a good group of guys,” said former Richmond County Schools Superintendent Larry Weatherly, who was Hamlet’s assistant coach in 1968. “They got along so well and they loved baseball. It was a lot of fun being around them.”
Hamlet’s only two regular-season losses were to the University of North Carolina freshmen (6-1) and Sanford (5-4). It would avenge one of those losses in the District 4 Championship, however, grabbing a 2-0 victory over Sanford.
It looked as if the Red Rams’ season was going to come to an end when they went up against Dunn in the SEC title game, but Steve Winchester blasted a three-run homer in the final inning to win the game, 4-3, in comeback fashion.
From there, they defeated Steadman 6-4 in the first round, shut out Garner 6-0 in the Eastern 3A Championship and then made history by escaping Bowman in the state championship three-game series (1-0, 1-5, 6-3).
“We had all basically been brought up together, from little league on up,” Winchester said of the championship squad. “We just had a great community and a great coach, and things finally came to fruition.”
Winchester, an “outstanding pitcher and hitter,” was one of a handful of standout players on the ‘68 team: third baseman Jerry Suggs, catcher Buddy Coble, outfielder Gratten White and centerfielder Larry Stinson — who hit over .400 that season.
“They were great kids to coach and they had great, very enthusiastic parents that supported our team,” Whitfield said. “They worked hard and have remained a very close group over these last 50 years.
“Of course if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t all be coming back,” he added with a laugh.
Reach sports editor Leon Hargrove Jr. by phone at 910-817-2673 or by email at [email protected] For stories, scores and updates, follow the Daily Journal’s sports section on Twitter @RCDailySports.