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Local Teams Give Fans A Reason to Cheer | By Thad Mumau

This has been quite a year for Fayetteville sports. Its two professional teams won championships and its baseball team dominated the regular season.

The Fayetteville FireAntz gave the city its first pro championship in 51 years when they won the 2007 Southern Professional Hockey League title. The championship drought dated back to 1956, when the Fayetteville Hilanders won the Carolina League baseball title. Two pitchers from that club, Danny Osinski and Wynn Hawkins, went on to Major League careers.

The Fayetteville Guard won the 2007 National Indoor Football championship by defeating the Wyoming Cavalry, 48-34, in front of a crowd of 5,100 at the Crown Coliseum. The Guard culminated a 12-0 season and won its last three home games by a combined score of 246-6.

Running back Wilmont Perry and wide receiver Jammie Deese were named co-MVPs after scoring two touchdowns each in the title game. Quarterback Shawn Withy-Allen completed 18 of 22 passes for 157 yards and three touchdowns and scored once himself.

The Fayetteville SwampDogs won both the first- and second-half Coastal Plain League South Division championships in 2007 and set a league record for victories (42) in the process. The CPL is comprised of college baseball players. The Dogs also set a league record by winning 23 games during the first half of the season.

The FireAntz open their 2007-08 season Oct. 26th with a home game vs. the Twin City Cyclones. It will be a special night at the Crown Coliseum with a ceremony to honor the SPHL champs. The championship banner will be raised to the rafters and championship rings will be presented. Special SPHL championship jerseys will be worn by the FireAntz during the game and auctioned off to fans afterward.

Fayetteville drew more than 93,000 fans last season, averaging over 3,300 for 28 home games. The Antz defeated Jacksonville in the SPHL championship series, winning the best-of-five in four games, as goalie Chad Collins was named series MVP. Teammate B.J. Stephens was voted the regular-season MVP.

Fayetteville has a new coach as Tommy Stewart takes over for John Marks, who took a coaching job with the Pensacola Ice Pilots of the East Coast Hockey League. Stewart has a 106-74-14 record in three years as a head coach. He was the 2003-04 World Hockey Association coach of the year with Macon.

The FireAntz will play 26 home games this season, concluding March 22nd against Jacksonville.

The SwampDogs have been the Coastal Plain League power house for three years under manager Darrell Handelsman, winning five of a possible six half-season division championships while compiling a 114-47 record during that period.

Handelsman’s brand of baseball is exciting and entertaining. More than 60,000 fans turned out to see it this past summer and help Fayetteville lead the CPL in attendance. The Dogs’ style is old-school, with an emphasis on fundamentals and execution. They bunt, run the bases aggressively and advance runners.

Disregarding the modern tendency to rely on the long ball, the SwampDogs play small ball, and they play it extremely well. They swiped 141 bases, including 12 in one late-season game highlighted by a very rare triple-steal.

“That’s how we play,” Handelsman says. “We try to make things happen. I equate it to a fast break in basketball. We like to put the other team on the defensive, and a lot of times, that forces mistakes. We preach bunting and moving the runner. The way we play puts our guys in position to be successful.”

Success for CPL players means attracting Major League scouts’ attention, with the hope of eventually signing a pro contract.

“We are nurturing prospects,” Handelsman says, “so part of our job is to make them better players and give them the best chance to play professional baseball. These kids buy into our system, and they have fun. Of course, it is always more fun when you win, and we have won quite a bit.”

Handelsman has convinced the SwampDogs that they will enhance their baseball futures more by hitting around .300 and showing they know how to bunt and run than by swatting a handful of homers and batting .250. Most of them can steal a base, dash from first to third on a single and lay down a bunt. This club can manufacture runs.

The SwampDogs posted the best record in the Coastal Plain League, scored a league-leading 349 runs and finished with a 3.04 earned run average, which ranked second. The obvious assumption is that they have the best players in the league.

“I don’t know that we necessarily have the best players,” Handelsman says. They may not be the best prospects, but we have the best team. We have proven our point.”

Watching the SwampDogs is a delightful experience, especially for baseball purists. Just being at the ballpark, though, is tremendous fun. Something is always happening. At the end of every half inning, fans go down on the field to participate in contests like baby-stroller races and tire rolling. Fireworks displays follow some of the games.

J.P. Riddle Stadium is a great place to spend a summer evening. The SwampDogs make it that way for the hard-core baseball fan and for families.