The Grind, Presented by the Bank of Clarendon: P-15's Coulter brings JUCO World Series experience into his final year of legion ball


Former Sumter High standout Bryce Coulter has pretty much seen it all on the diamond.
During high school, Bryce saw how difficult the sport of baseball can be. He lost most of his first high school season to COVID-19 before going through a carousel of coaching changes. Add in a junior season mostly lost to a knee injury, and it would be easy for Bryce to be discouraged by the sport.
But his passion for the game didn't waver. Bryce overcame the struggles to put together a strong senior season and signed to continue his career at Florence-Darlington Tech. In his first season, he had a front-row seat as the Stingers made a deep run in the Junior College World Series, though they fell just shy of the ultimate prize.
Days after Bryce's college season ended, he was back on the field at Riley Park, suiting up for the P-15's. His desire to rush back to the field to play for his local legion team is the same thing that pushes him to continually hone his craft.
"I love the game," Bryce said simply. "My mom was here, my dad was here, my stepmom was here, just had to play in front of them. I love the game.
"I'll get my rest when I'm old."
Bryce has always loved the game of baseball. His early days were spent inside with a plastic bat and ball in the living room with his older brother and dad.
"From Day 1, he just had that natural swing," Bryce's father, Bruce, recalls. "We always worked on drills, sitting in the house. I used to hit ground balls in the house, and we broke a lot of stuff as he was getting older."
That sparked a life-long passion that only grew with time. While Bruce tried to push his son toward basketball and football, baseball was always there. The Coulter family traveled across the country as Bryce played in travel ball tournaments. Baseball had a firm grip on Bryce at that point. By the time he transferred to Sumter High, everything else faded into the background.
"Honestly, it was just the competition," Bryce said of what called him to the diamond. "Once the competition gets better, you put yourself in a situation like, `OK, these guys are good. I've got to be better than them.' So, it's like a competition thing. I like competition."
As Bryce reached high school, he thought everything was falling into place. He was playing varsity immediately, but that didn't last long.
The coronavirus pandemic put the world in a standstill in the spring of 2020 and took Bryce's senior season after just a handful of games. The changes kept coming when head coach Brooks Shumake was fired amid a postseason ban for an SCHSL rules violation. He was replaced with Will Howard, who left midway through Bryce's junior season. Then-athletic director Curtis Johnson took over for the rest of the year before Will McMillan took the reins for Bryce's senior year.
Amid all that turnover, Bryce dislocated his patella in the days leading up to his junior season in 2022. He fought to get back onto the field only to reinjure his knee.
"I just kind of got into a little dark hole," Bryce admitted. "(But I) Crawled back out of it and finished out my junior year."
Through all of that hardship, Bryce learned a valuable lesson.
"There's gonna be roller coasters, there's gonna be roadblocks," he said. "Are you gonna let the roadblock stop you or you're gonna overcome it? It's just it's all life lessons at the end of the day."
The timing of his injury was the biggest hurdle Bryce had to clear. An athlete's junior season is typically the most important in the recruitment process. When Bryce hurt his knee, a lot of college coaches stopped calling.
But there was one coach who never quit on the SHS product.
Florence-Darlington head coach Preston McDonald, an alumnus of Sumter School District as a former Lakewood standout, had interest in Bryce dating back to junior legion ball. As Bryce and the Junior P-15's made a run in the state playoffs at Riley Park, Preston knew he needed to keep an eye on Bryce.
"He was physical for a younger kid, athletic, his arm moved well," Preston said of his early thoughts on Bryce. "We liked him as a two-way guy. He had good hands in the infield, arm strength and some pop in the bat. We loved his potential and felt like he'd be a great fit for us, and I think he felt the same way."
That level of interest didn't go away when Bryce injured his knee.
"You certainly never want any players to get hurt, but we felt like, due to his injury, he was going to get overlooked and it was going to give us a better chance of landing him," Preston admitted. "We felt like we had seen enough from a potential standpoint that he would be a good fit for us once he was healthy."
That trust meant a lot to Bryce. He also had a former teammate find success at Flo-Dar, as fellow SHS alumnus Jackson Hoshour made his own run to the JUCO World Series with the Stingers in 2021.
"My freshman year, Jackson was a senior and I witnessed him going there, and I was like, `Dang, he's good.' I was seeing him progressively get better as an athlete, so I was like I want to be like that a little bit," Bryce said. "I wanted to go there, get their development and then try to go somewhere else. Seeing that really made it seem like, `OK, I need to go here.'"
Bryce quickly learned that college baseball is no walk in the park.
For one, baseball is a year-round commitment in college. Sure, he played outside of the Sumter High season while in high school, but it was nothing like Flo-Dar. With the Stingers, Bryce played a season in the fall before the season that really counts in the spring. On top of that, he was competing against top-level athletes. High-end JUCO programs like Florence-Darlington tend to be ideal destinations for Division I athletes who want to boost their draft stock, so Bryce wasn't just competing against freshmen.
"I was just like a little pup, and they're big dogs," Bryce said of his more experienced teammates. "I was like, `You know what? It's a dog-eat-dog world, so I had to eat.' Seeing that progressively made me become better and better. Great teammates along with it, too."
When Bryce watched his teammates practice, he thought they made things look easy. It was a challenge for a young athlete trying to adjust to the rigors of college baseball. Luckily, he had teammates who were willing to teach him some ways to stay calm amid the stress.
"I did a lot of breathing exercises to mellow out and get my mind right," Bryce said, giving credit to his throwing partner, Michael Gibson, for the tip. "If I ever felt like I'm scared or I'm nervous, I would walk away and just do breathing exercises, like the box breathing or anything like that."
When the spring rolled around, the Stingers hit the ground running. Flo-Dar went 54-12 this season, including an incredible 24-4 record in Region X. Bryce earned his share of time on the field, splitting his time between the mound and third base. He got his first chance to toe the rubber just three games into the season, pitching a shutout inning in a 7-1 loss to State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota.
"I think he really turned the corner as a pitcher against State College of Florida," McDonald said. "We brought him out of the pen with runners on, and he was able to get us out of it. I think that gave him the confidence moving forward the rest of the spring."
He got his first hit against CCBC Dundalk, going 2-3 with a double and four RBIs in a 23-1 rout. In their lone trip to USC Sumter, Bryce collected two hits, including a triple, and drove in two runs.
"Coincidentally, I think his best weekend as a position player was against USC Sumter at Riley Park," McDonald said. "He had some big hits for us and played great defense. I think playing at Riley gave him the comfort he needed to perform at a high level."
While he had to battle for playing time, Bryce put together a strong freshman season. He hit .381 with a home run, a triple and four doubles. He swiped two bags and scored 20 runs, while driving in 17. As the season continued, he shifted into more of a reliever, pitching in 14 games. He pitched 22 1/3 innings with a 4.43 ERA, striking out 23.
Fighting for playing time was new for Bryce, but he loved the challenge.
"I loved it. I love the competition. I love seeing older guys; they really pushed me," Bryce said. "They really pushed me to become a better player, so I loved it. I love trying to put myself forward and prove myself to somebody.
"Pressure makes diamonds, so if coach puts you in a situation, you've got to make the most of it because you never know if that might be your last one. Just any situation you get put on, you've got to play like it's your last."
Florence-Darlington mowed their way through the Region X tournament, going undefeated with an 18-7 win over USC Sumter for the Region championship. That sent Flo-Dar to the East District Tournament in New York.
After opening with a 2-1 win over Monroe College, they lost the rematch 3-0. One more loss and their season was over. They jumped out to a 5-0 lead by the end of the second inning and never looked back in a 13-4 win, advancing to the Junior College World Series in the process.
"I looked around in the dugout, and I could tell nobody wanted to go home," Bryce said. "Everybody was locked in on the game. We just wanted to win. So we won that game, punched our ticket to Grand Junction."
The JUCO World Series is, in many ways, unlike any other baseball tournament. It is set in the town of Grand Junction, Colorado, and the entire city screeches to a halt and gives its undivided attention to the world series. From the second he stepped off the plane, Bryce was hooked.
"And we get there, we're practicing, people are walking their dogs, all this, asking us questions. We've got little kids walking up to us, asking us questions, who we play for, when do we play," Bryce said. "It was an awesome experience. I can't get over it."
Winning helps, too. The Stingers took down Iowa Western Community College 13-4 in their opener and followed with a tight 9-8 win over College of Southern Nevada. That second game also gave Flo-Dar a bit of a mascot: Uncrustables.
The Stingers always have the crustless PB&Js on standby as a snack between games. Bryce had a habit of shaking the box for closer Derek Duval and did just that as Duval closed out the win over Southern Nevada. After the game, Bryce had a surprising encounter.
"This kid walks up to me and asked me for an Uncrustable. I was like, sure, we've got a lot of them. I pulled one out of my back pocket, and I walk up to him. He says, `Can you sign it for me?' I was like, `You want me to sign an Uncrustable?'" Bryce recounted. "I sign it, I give it to him, and he's like, `Me and my family are gonna have a surprise for y 'all next game.' We come back next game, and he has three big boxes of Uncrustables for us, and the fans just loved it."
The sandwiches became their rallying cry and brought a different level of support as they played across the country from their home state.
"It helped the team a lot," he said. "Obviously, we're from South Carolina and we're all the way in Colorado. We had some fans out there who can make it, and just having those extra fans from (Grand Junction) just wanting to see us succeed just made us play a whole lot better."
Unfortunately, their rallying cry couldn't save the Stingers in their next game, as they faced Blinn College. Blinn's staggering offense got going immediately, scoring six runs in the first on their way to a 17-7 win over Flo-Dar, pushing the Stingers into the losers bracket. The game proved to be Bryce's only chance to play in Colorado. He pitched one inning in relief, allowing four runs on four hits, while striking out one. He definitely learned a lot facing a team like Blinn.
"I saw a kid get in the box who was going to LSU. I was like, `OK, I got to beat this kid.' He stopped me from eating," Bryce said.
It wasn't all sour for Bryce. He hit a new personal record on his fastball, reaching 93 miles per hour on the radar gun. Bruce was incredibly impressed by the way his son performed on the biggest stage.
"I was super proud. He didn't back down, which he hasn't all year," Bruce said. "I mean, he's had a really good year with Flo-Dar. But to get out there in front of all of those fans and throw strikes - because if they hit the ball, you're throwing strikes - but to handle that and not be scared and get up there and do the best you can, I thought it was great. I think it was a learning experience."
Bruce felt that all of the adversity Bryce experienced during high school and throughout his year at Flo-Dar helped prepare the righty for moments like this.
"I think it toughened him up a little bit mentally, and then he kind of worked really hard physically when he couldn't play. He got in the weight room and really applied himself, and you can really see the transformation. I think through the four coaches, the COVID year, the injury, I think he hasn't even hit his best baseball yet," Bruce said. "I just think the adversity has just made him a tougher player, and now competing against some of the best in the country, making it to JUCO World Series, it's just made him that much better. I think really his best baseball is ahead of him."
But Flo-Dar's season wasn't done with that loss. They came back and pulled out a dramatic comeback for a 6-4 win in a rematch with College of Southern Nevada, setting up one of the most chaotic games you'll see on a diamond at any level.
The Stingers once again faced Blinn on May 30. After falling behind 5-0, they charged back with a five-run third. Blinn pushed their lead to 18-9 through the top of the seventh, but the Stingers punched back with seven runs in the bottom of the inning before jumping ahead 19-18 with three more runs in the eighth. But Blinn had the last laugh, pushing across three runs in the ninth to win 21-19.
Days after losing in the JUCO World Series, Bryce was back at Riley Park to play in the P-15's preseason tournament on Sunday, June 2. It would've been acceptable to take the weekend off, but Bryce was ready to get back on the field.
The P-15's mean the world to Bryce. He had offers to play in different college wood bat leagues across the country and Canada. In fact, just last week, he got another offer to play in the Valley League in Virginia. He turned each one down.
"I wasn't going nowhere; I was staying home. I'm going to play at home for my last time," Bryce said. "I'm not going to give it up like that. I had to come out here, play my last season here."
He couldn't let a childhood dream end prematurely.
"I remember me and my dad, we were driving through here one time when I was young. And he pointed out there. He showed me the Riley Park sign. He's like, `I want you to play out there one day,'" Bryce said. "And it just stuck with me, so now I'm here."
Bruce remembers watching players like Preston and Matt Price starring for the P-15's as he grew up. He totally understood his son's decision.
"Bryce was so geared up to play with the P-15's, and I was, too. I watched the P-15's as a kid growing up," Bruce said. "It was a privilege to play for the P-15's, and Bryce wanted to come back for his last year and see what we can do, see if we can make a push against Florence and win the whole thing."
That decision meant the world to Sumter head coach Randy Twitty, who was thrilled to have his shortstop and closer back in the fold.
"It says a lot about him, that he cares about his community and the American Legion program," Randy said. "It's good for us because we expect him to be our closer, we expect him to be one of our hitters in the middle of the lineup. He makes us a better team, so it was big."
The P-15's made an excellent run last season, making it to the state playoffs and finishing as one of the final four teams in South Carolina before a 4-0 loss to Camden. That loss left a hunger in Bryce that he hopes to quench this summer.
"We're all excited. We lost out in the state playoffs, but we got something to prove this year," he said.
Bryce also hopes the players who are making the jump up from the junior team can bring some of their mojo after winning the Junior American Legion State Championship last summer.
"It's just being around winning," Bryce said. "The junior teams that's coming into the play with the seniors, they were around winning last year. They saw a winning atmosphere. And then us that were here last year in the state playoffs still have a sour taste in our mouths from losing. Both of us colliding with team chemistry like this, we're ready."