Playoffs: Same Game, New Season
Great pitching, timely hitting and just a little bit of luck. Those are things that are almost certainly necessary for a team to advance in North Carolina’s high school baseball playoffs.
The coaching staff at Pinecrest has something else it’s been stressing to players this week. It involves breathing easy and staying loose.
“We’re instilling in our kids daily that this is just a game,” head coach Jeff Hewitt said. “It’s still the game they grew up playing in little league. We want our players to enjoy themselves and play to their best abilities.”
Ranked in the top 10 of the Class 4A poll throughout the season, the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament champion Patriots (18-5) open the playoffs at home at John Williams Field tonight hosting Mid-South Conference four-seed Pine Forest at 7 p.m. in the 4A East bracket.
Up the road in Cameron, meanwhile, playoff baseball returns to Union Pines for the first time in three seasons, as the Vikings host Cardinal Gibbons at 7 p.m. in the 3A East bracket.
“We have been gearing ourselves up for this opportunity since summer ball last year,” said head coach Chad Hill, who led Union Pines (13-10) to a second-place finish in the Cape Fear Valley Conference. “Each player has taken the opportunity to get better each day, and now we just have to put it into action come game time.”
North Moore coach Brandon Reynolds takes his squad to Bessemer City High School for its playoff opener in the 1A West bracket.
Despite finishing second in the Yadkin Valley 1A Conference regular season, the Mustangs (16-8) were bumped into the conference’s third seed for the playoffs after the third-place finisher in the regular season, Albemarle, won the conference tournament.
The first four rounds of the baseball playoffs are single elimination, while the regional and state finals for each of the four NCHSAA classifications are decided in best-of-three series.
Pine Forest at Pinecrest
There was no shortage of excitement in the first season of Southeastern Conference baseball.
After a 4-0 start, Pinecrest dropped its next two in league play, falling on a walk-off home run at Hoke before a gutsy pitching performance at Lumberton sent the Patriots to a 2-1 loss. They rebounded behind ace pitcher Dillon Maples’ no-hitter at rival Scotland, before reclaiming first place in the league standings with a 4-2 win at Purnell Swett.
A pair of seventh-inning home runs helped Pinecrest break a seven-game Richmond winning streak on the road, and the Patriots won the regular-season title and avenged an earlier loss with an extra-inning win over Hoke on the last night of the regular season.
Then there was the conference tournament, in which Pinecrest left no doubt about its regular-season title by beating Hoke and Richmond one more time.
“With this being the first year in the SEC, it is an honor for our program to win the regular season and the tournament championships,” said Hewitt. “With the number of quality teams in our league, this was no easy task. There is no doubt that the close games we played late in the season will help us in our ability to deal with adversity when it hits in the playoffs.”
Nevertheless, the playoffs represent a new season, in which one loss, one unearned run, one baserunning error could be the difference between advancing or going home.
Hewitt says he likes the way his players are putting the team before themselves at this point.
“They realize that no matter what, we’re going to advance runners with sac bunts and do whatever it takes to score them,” he said.
As far as the pitching rotation goes, Hewitt has Maples, a junior who committed to UNC prior to the season, senior Zach Christian, who has been the team’s other regular starter throughout the season, while Joe Vecchione and Joe Herbert figure to be other options.
“Our pitching rotation will be a key,” Hewitt said. “We are asking them to pitch with confidence and stay within themselves.”
Cardinal Gibbons at Union Pines
Union Pines coach Chad Hill said his team had one of its better practices of the year on Tuesday.
“They are very excited about the playoffs, but at the same time, they don’t seemed wide-eyed,” he said.
Without a single player on the roster with any playoff experience, the Vikings (13-10) are the second seed from the Cape Fear Valley Conference and enter Friday’s tilt having won seven of their last 10 games.
“We will be relying on each individual to do their part Friday, just like they have all season,” said Hill.
The Vikings are not unfamiliar with Cardinal Gibbons. On opening day, the Crusaders topped Union Pines 3-1 in a game that featured five fielding errors by the Vikings.
“Everyone should expect to see a very good squad when Cardinal Gibbons takes the field,” said Hill. “They are fundamentally sound, play hard and have solid pitching. They are a smart club and usually opt to play small ball and hit behind the runners while puting guys in motion. Their pitchers throw strikes, vary the pitch selection and don’t walk many batters.”
Gibbons is 16-7 overall as the third seed from the Carolina Conference.
The Union Pines baseball program invites all fans and anyone not doing anything today to stop by the park in Cameron to watch two good ball clubs leave everything out on the field.
“We always talk about playing the game the right way, and we feel like we have a great opportunity on Friday, in the playoffs and at home, to show everyone just exactly what that is,” said Hill.
— F.W. Manning II
North Moore at Bessemer City
Reynolds says that Bessemer City, the second seed from the Southern Piedmont Conference, enters the playoffs with an 11-11 overall record.
North Moore just missed an opportunity to host its first-round game. With the regular-season conference championship on the line, the Mustangs led defending 1A state champion South Stanly 5-4 in the sixth inning before the Rebel Bulls rallied for a 6-5 win.
In the conference tournament, North Moore rallied from a 6-0 first-inning deficit to beat South Davidson in the first round, but the Mustangs were soundly beaten by an 18-8 score in the semifinals by an Albemarle team they had swept during the regular season.
Today’s game at Bessemer City begins at 6 p.m.
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