Pinecrest High School Baseball for The Pilot Newspaper

Pinecrest's Cam Bunker slides into home against Apex early in the fourth-round win. Bunker played a big role in the loss last year at Fuquay-Varina.

 

It was during a talk the first day of practice this season that Pinecrest baseball coach Jeff Hewitt remembers the exact location where his team dug up the past just for a brief moment to help set the tone for the season.

“We really felt like our guys, during that game, matured a little bit,” Hewitt said. “We talked about it right here in front of the dugout about how we’ve got to play every inning, we’ve got to play every pitch. We can’t let an inning just take us out of the game.”

Fuquay-Varina, who dealt Pinecrest its season-ending loss last year, now is the opponent for the next week for Pinecrest, which is now looking for its first appearance in the state title in 43 years.

With this playoff run being the deepest the Pinecrest baseball team has ever had in more than three decades, the format of the regional finals has changed vastly.

Second-seeded Pinecrest has home field advantage over No. 13 Fuquay-Varina in the best-of-three series that starts Tuesday at John Williams Field at 7 p.m.

“In high school, I haven’t, and travel ball doesn’t really work that way. This will be my first time,” senior catcher Jackson Kuhn said of playing in a best-of-three series format. “We’ve just got to do what we do, work in practice and let it translate into the game.”

In 1985, the Patriots lost to Southern Wayne 11-0 in the 4A East regional final championship game. The Saints then advanced to the state championship series, which they won. In the time since, the N.C. High School Athletic Association changed the format so that the regional final will be decided in a best-of-three series.

Even for longtime coach Jeff Hewitt, this was a part of the playoffs he has always wanted to see his team compete in.

“I can’t wait to get in that best of three because I know we have pitching. I know we’ve got guys that can do a good job for us. You’ve got to have a pitching staff, and we do,” Hewitt said. “I think the top two teams in the east are still alive.”

The Bengals have kicked the Patriots out of the playoffs two of the previous four seasons. In 2017, Fuquay-Varina defeated Pinecrest in Southern Pines in the third round of the 4A state playoffs, 7-6, after scoring three runs in the top of the seventh inning.

Most recently, an 11-6 loss for Pinecrest in the second round of the 2021 state playoffs is still fresh in the minds of the Patriots.

Pinecrest High School Baseball for The Pilot Newspaper

The Pinecrest baseball team watches the action in the third-round win over Hoggard at home. The Patriots play in the 4A East regional final this week against Fuquay-Varina.

The Bengals went on to win the 4A state championship last spring over Reagan.

Many of the same faces return from both sides. Pinecrest returns six of the nine batters in the order from that loss, and all four pitchers who made an appearance in the loss are key components of the Pinecrest pitching staff.

Cam Bunker, then a junior, had five RBIs on a homer and two doubles in the loss. He also pitched an inning in relief in the game played at Willow Springs High School while Fuquay-Varina was closed for renovations last year.

Bunker’s role with the team has changed throughout this season, now a vital arm for the pitching staff, but his bat has been a key piece in moving runners over and setting the table for the heart of the order this season.

“We moved Cam up in the lineup. Even though he’s not doing what he did last year, hitting doubles in the gap,” Hewitt said. “Now he’s moving runners over and he’s matured as a baseball player.”

The 2020 season, while cut short due to COVID, ended with a 7-1 loss to the Bengals.

“I think we are all going to remember what happened. The past two years we’ve been here we’ve walked away with a loss,” Bunker said last year after the playoff loss. “We’ll definitely remember this and we’ll be stronger, older and have more baseball experience to be ready for it.”

This year’s Fuquay-Varina team features a new cast of starters from the senior-heavy lineup a year ago. Senior Jackson Humphries and A.J. Hollinsworth are the only two players who returned to the batting lineup and played in more than 10 games last season.

Humphries is the ace of the staff this season. With more than 40 innings pitched this season and 89 strikeouts, the Campbell recruit has drawn attention for his low 90s fastball coming from the left side to go along with his curveball and slider. He has a 1.55 ERA.

The staff also includes senior Connor Paullin, who has committed to Catawba Valley Community College, and has a team-best 15 appearances on the mound. Junior left-handed pitcher H.L. Smith has already committed to North Carolina and has thrown a team-high 43 inning with 61 strikeouts.

Smith and fellow junior Brady Nathison are two of the top bats in the Bengal batting order. Nathison has a .405 batting average with 24 RBIs, and Smith has hit .358 with 21 RBIs.

The road to the regional final for the Bengals came with a 4-3 win over Clayton in the first round at home, a 9-6 win at Middle Creek, a 16-6 win over Chapel Hill at home and a 12-2 win Friday at home against Topsail.

The winner of the series faces either top-seeded Providence or No. 10 T.C. Roberson in the state championship next weekend.

Contact Jonathan Bym at (910) 693-2470 or jonathan@thepilot.com.

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