‘Brothers For Life’

Pictured is the 1990 South Johnston baseball team with the 3-A state championship trophy. The group finished 25-3, taking home the program’s first state title.

1990 Trojans Bond Over First State Title

FOUR OAKS — Thirty years later, Scott Barbour can still feel the metal cleats from his South Johnston teammates scraping his face as they piled on each other at the pitcher’s mound.

It was the only painful moment for Barbour and his 10 “brothers” on June 8, 1990 as they celebrated the school’s first baseball state championship amid a sea of raucous fans flooding the home field.

Losers of only three contests the entire season, the Trojans separated themselves by profiting off of a collection of talent that included two future Division-I aces, elite hitters and even better camaraderie.

The close relationships propelled the group through a rough start, close calls in the postseason and now, still stand the test of time.

Story before the glory

Playing every game with its nine starters and just two reserves, the Trojans relied heavily on a unique bond that was cultivated on and off the diamond.

Barbour says that though some of the players grew up competing against one another in multiple sports, there was only one high school in the local area, which forced them to combine their respective talents and personalities.

“It went so much further than ball. We would go hang out and fish together — and did some things back then we probably shouldn’t be doing, as kids,” Barbour laughed. “If you messed with one, you messed with us all. You didn’t cross one of us without crossing the other 10. That’s just the way it was.”

Helping guide and mold the club was the man Barbour calls a father figure, Pat Smith, who took over as coach his freshman year. The pitcher who went on toss the final strike to Barbour in the title-clinching game, fellow junior Chad McLamb, held Smith in similarly high regard.

“Outside of my father, he’s the best coach I’ve ever had,” McLamb said of Smith, who got the best out of a bunch of “goofballs,” he added. “He made us work hard. He knew what type of talent we had, but we didn’t understand it.”

Meanwhile, senior second baseman Chris Norris credits Smith’s “old school” approach to why the team gained outstanding fundamentals and selflessness that carried them through one of the most dominating seasons in state history.

Building confidence

The Trojans dropped two of their first three games to start the 1990 campaign, which Norris says caused some apprehension and briefly questioned Smith’s preseason message about how good the team could be.

But the veteran infielder says the overall unity and unselfish nature of all 11 players kept morale from sinking early.

“Nobody cared who got the credit as long as we won the ball game. That was our attitude,” said Norris.

Following the second loss, a pep talk from Smith was the remedy as his team answered with a 13-game winning streak, powered by a stingy defense.

McLamb takes pride in the club’s abnormal pitching situation, with he and senior standout Ryan Flowers being the only starting pitchers the entire season.

“We took the ball and it was us for seven (innings),” said McLamb who ended the season with an 11-2 record while Flowers, a North Carolina State commit, set a record with his 14-0 mark.

With the offense providing support and the wins piling on, McLamb remembers there being a point in time in which the opponent didn’t matter. Classmates and fans took notice of the team’s work on the field and made frequent requests for game predictions.

“As we won some games … our confidence grew so much that people would ask us who we were playing that day and none of us really knew. We just knew that we were going to win,” said McLamb.

“It sounds really arrogant, but we were just so confident with the way we could hit the ball, and me and Ryan never really giving up any runs, that it was not going to be good for the other team.”

For Barbour, it was the 5-4 win over a tough Garner squad halfway through the season that was the turning point. It not only avenged one of the two early losses, but the victory also handed Garner its first defeat of the season.

“When we beat Garner…I knew we could beat anybody,” said Barbour. Garner was so good.”

The winning streak was snapped by local rival Western Harnett, a close 4-3 decision that came from a late squeeze play that Norris says still bothers him. He and the Trojans wrapped up the regular season by taking the final five games, collecting a conference title in the process.

Championship run

South opened the state playoffs with easy wins over Tarboro and Havelock, respectively, in the first two rounds. That set up a third-round showdown with former South coach Steve Coats and his 20-plus win Washington team.

McLamb credits the multitude of “heroes” for avoiding upsets in the playoff run, none of whom were larger than Chris Stephenson.

With Flowers taking all he could handle through 10 full innings and the score still knotted at 2, McLamb relieved Flowers in the 11th and retired the first four batters. He kept Washington off the board for two more frames, setting up Stephenson’s heroics.

“We were fortunate. Championship teams get lucky breaks. We took advantage of it,” said Norris who hinted to Washington’s inability to convert squeeze plays with a runner on third in back-to-back innings. “Chris Stephenson hit a moonshot and it hasn’t come down since.”

Stephenson’s 13th-inning home run gave the Trojans a 5-2 lead, allowing McLamb and what he calls the “best infield anybody ever played with” to advance to the Eastern final.

“That was the championship, really. We were the two best teams in 3-A,” said Norris.

A narrow, 2-1 victory over Western Alamance saw the Trojans collect the East title and set up a best-out-of-three series with North Gaston for the state championship.

McLamb says the group had extra motivation heading into the title matchup, knowing the only other option to start on the mound in a potential Game 3 scenario would be a JV player.

“Our team knew we couldn’t go three games. We had to win both games,” he said. “The most nervous player in the stadium in Games 1 and 2 was the JV guy. He’s sitting there praying that we win.”

Meanwhile, Barbour and Norris couldn’t help but recount the deafening atmosphere of home fans and South Johnston marching band during both contests.

Barbour says the school had to rent extra bleachers, which were five rows deep with supporters, to accommodate those in attendance. Norris remembers there being standing-room only once those seats were taken.

“It was the biggest crowd you could ever imagine at a high school baseball game. It was sort of breathtaking,” said Norris.

Flowers had no problems from the hill in Game 1, barely allowing a run in the 4-1 decision.

McLamb got the start in the series clincher. Despite giving up a game-tying RBI hit late in the contest that tied it at 3, the trustworthy Trojans responded with three runs in the top of the seventh to take a 5-3 lead.

McLamb closed things out in the seventh, wrapping up the program’s first state championship with his 11th strikeout of the game.

“That, to me, was a fitting way for it to end. I’m glad it ended on a strikeout,” said McLamb.

‘Brothers for life’

The press box at Bruce Coats Field proudly displays one commemorative plague against its brick exterior, a dark green state emblem with gold letters reading, “NCHSAA 1990 State 3-A Baseball Champions.”

“I believe this in my heart, there were maybe even greater teams before our time that went to South Johnston. We were great. We loved the game. We were a brotherhood and we had Lady Luck on our side,” Barbour said, noting he and most of the guys still reside in Johnston County. “We love each other. If one (player) called right now and needed something, I believe in my heart that we would all get together and help one another out.”

He works full-time as a hitting instructor and assistant coach for the Cleveland High School softball program and says he regularly connects with at least half of the team for outdoor trips or to simply reminisce.

Norris went on to play at Mount Olive College (now University of Mount Olive) and currently lives two miles from Four Oaks where he coaches his kids’ travel teams.

After wrapping his playing career at North Carolina State University, McLamb says he has also kept in touch with everyone, noting that the most gratifying part of the championship team was the lasting relationship they established.

“The best thing about it is, you know at that point … we’re brothers for life. Nobody else on the planet but us 11 guys has that brotherhood,” said McLamb.

-Dunn Daily Record story and photos