PUMPKIN CENTER – In the midst of a playoff run powered by dominant pitching, it was the North Lincoln bats that came to life in the clutch with the Knights’ season on the line to secure a spot in the 2A state championship.
Entering the bottom of the fourth inning without a hit and trailing 2-0, North Lincoln could feel its season slipping through its grasp in a winner-take-all western regional Game 3 against the West Lincoln Rebels, whose Chris Moxley had just blasted a two-run home run to the deepest part of the ballpark in the top half of the inning.
Having failed to score in 10 consecutive innings, the Knights were desperate for a spark, and leadoff man Sam Brady used his speed to beat out an infield single and breathe some life into a nervous home crowd.
A Matt Heavner single put runners on first and second, and with no outs, Seth Whitley attempted a sacrifice bunt to move the tying run into scoring position. Whitley’s bunt rolled slowly to the pitcher, who scooped and fired to third in an attempt to nail the lead runner, but Brady was able to beat the throw to load the bases with nobody out for the Knights’ cleanup hitter, Jake Soorus.
Soorus, another speed demon, drove in North Lincoln’s first run by beating out an infield single to plate Brady and cut the deficit in half. A strikeout and a pop up to third base followed, leaving the bases loaded with two outs for first baseman Daniel Carter.
Just one out from escaping the jam with the lead intact, West Lincoln’s pitcher uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Heavner to score from third, tying the game 2-2. Later in the at-bat, Carter delivered the biggest hit of the season for North Lincoln, lacing a two-RBI single down the third base line to put the Knights on top 4-2.
Carter’s hit was followed by another single from George Fox, and then another wild pitch put runners on second and third with Landon Reeves up to bat. The freshman second baseman calmly dumped a single into right field, scoring both runners to extend North Lincoln’s lead to 6-2 after four innings.
The Rebels responded with a run on a sacrifice fly in the top of the fifth to trim the deficit to 6-3, but North Lincoln continued to pile on after opening the floodgates in the fourth.
Heavner, a freshman, led off the bottom of the fifth with a double into the gap in left-center. Following a walk and a hit batter, the Knights once again had the bases loaded with nobody out.
Heavner scored from third on a wild pitch for the second time, and senior catcher Tanner Brumfield ripped a two-RBI single up the middle to open up a 9-3 lead for the Knights. Fox delivered North Lincoln’s 10th run with an RBI fielder’s choice, and Whitley added an insurance run with a sixth-inning single to make the lead 11-3.
The Rebels didn’t go down quietly, as a handful of defensive miscues by North Lincoln in the seventh inning allowed a pair of runs to score, but pitcher Josh Allen locked down the 11-5 victory to send the Knights to the state championship.
Allen, a senior who had pitched just one inning in the playoffs, started on the mound for the Knights and pitched all seven innings. The right-hander allowed eight hits while striking out three and walking one.
North Lincoln’s victory sets up a showdown with the Randleman Tigers in the state championship series to be played Friday and Saturday, May 31 and June 1, at UNC-Greensboro.
Randleman was dominant in its eastern regional final against Washington, going on the road to win the first game 4-2 before closing the series with a 10-0 drubbing to earn the sweep in Game 2. The Tigers are 27-4 overall and have won nine consecutive games after losing their regular season finale April 25.
The Knights enter the state championship with an overall record of 24-6, and like Randleman, North Lincoln has been on a tear, winning 10 of its last 11 since dropping a non-conference game against Combine Academy April 22.
Pitching has been North Lincoln’s strength all season, and should the series go three games, the Knights will send out a pitcher with a sub-2.00 earned-run average to start each contest.
Whitley, a sophomore, leads the staff with a 1.31 ERA, while seniors Allen and Joey Cobb aren’t far behind with marks of 1.44 and 1.43, respectively. Cobb has been particularly dominant, striking out 98 batters in just 58.2 innings this season.
The North Lincoln staff will face a loaded Randleman lineup led by senior Nick Neal, who’s hit 10 home runs and produced 45 RBIs. Juniors Matt Kemp and Connor Sterling also provide some pop for the Tigers, with five home runs each on the season.
Game 1 of the 2A state championship series is set for 8 p.m. May 31. Game 2 will be played at 2 p.m. June 1, with Game 3, if necessary, that evening at 8.