GARNER — A combination of first-inning fireworks and seven innings of trademark solid defense has Garner deeper in the state 4A baseball tournament than it has been in a very long time.
Vince Jefferies had his first homer of the season in a three-run first and Skylar Strickland contributed six solid innings of mound work Tuesday night, lifting the Trojans to a 5-1 win over New Bern in the second round of the playoffs.
The result gave the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference champion Trojans (23-2), who are on a 22-game winning streak, a third-round home game against Mid-South champion Fayetteville Terry Sanford (26-2) on Friday night.
This is the deepest the Trojans have gone in the tournament in Derik Goffena’s 10 seasons at the helm.
“Pitching has been our bread and butter all year,” Goffena said. “We haven’t hit a lot, but pitching and defense have been steady. We’ve been fortunate. Our infielders are strong, our outfielders can carry a lot of ground and we’ve got a veteran catcher (Carrington Austin) behind the plate.
“We feel very comfortable, as long as our pitchers aren’t giving up easy bases. And those early runs were huge. I think the two teams were a lot alike, so it was very big to get that lead.”
New Bern, the No. 2 seed from the Mideastern 4A, finished 17-9.
“Our effort was outstanding,” Bear coach Gary Smith said. “But when Garner had runners in scoring position they drove them in and when we had them in scoring position, we didn’t. We didn’t get the elusive two-out RBI.
“That’s been the story in our losses this year. After the first inning our pitching kept us in the game, and we played solid defense. The first inning took us out of what we do well, and it’s hard to give up outs when you get down three that quickly.”
Trever Lee went 3-for-3 with a sacrifice fly for Garner, which got three hits from Levin Woodall and two, including a RBI double, from Taylor Stephens.
Kyle Gaskins doubled and singled with an RBI for the Bears, while Josh Taylor doubled and singled.
Garner got all the runs it would need in the first off Bailey Jones, who lasted three-plus innings.
Stephens led off with a double to left and took third on a passed ball, then scored on Lee’s sacrifice fly to left. Woodall then singled to left, and with two out Jefferies blasted a 1-0 offering over the right-field fence for the senior’s fourth career homer.
Jefferies then flashed some major leather in the second when he made a diving catch on Syril Smith fly to left that may otherwise have gone for at least a double.
“That might be the best game I played this year,” said Jefferies, who will play for Shaw next season. “I think the home run got us some momentum.
“Skylar was great today. That was probably the best pitching we’ve had all year.”
The Trojans stretched the lead to 5-0 by scoring two runs on five hits in the fourth.
Strickland lasted six shutout innings, scattering seven hits while striking out three without a walk.
“I was feeling real good out there,” Strickland said. “I was able to put my fastball on the outside corner. Getting that three-run lead early was nice. It took a lot of weight off.
“This team just has a great bond because we’ve been playing together for so long. We don’t make a lot of mistakes. If I get a fly ball to the outfield, I know they’ve got it.”
New Bern got its only run in the seventh off Jake Ellington, as Trent Wynn singled with one out and scored on Kyle Gaskins’ two-out double.