It was a beautiful spring afternoon for baseball, the Panther Creek field was pristine and fans filled bleachers or lined the backstop and fence while seated in lawn chairs.
All that was missing for Tuesday’s N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A third-round playoff game matching Heritage and the Catamounts were umpires.
Panther Creek officials made frantic phone calls before they learned the umpires were scheduled for a 7 p.m. start rather than 4:30 on a field with no lights. After a one hour, 21-minute delay, the umpires took the field to a smattering of cheers – a rare, if unprecedented, sound for umpires to hear from baseball fans anywhere.
Most games with such a late start might not have beaten the sunset, but both pitchers threw strikes in complete-game efforts and there was only one error in a crisply-played contest that Panther Creek won in a 2-1 walk-ff.
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Panther Creek center fielder Ross Moreau punched a ground-ball single to right field with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh inning to score Nathan Lee. The game had started at 5:51 p.m. and finished at 7:32 – an elapsed time of only one hour, 41 minutes.
Panther Creek (17-9), the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference runner-up, won its seventh straight to advance to the fourth round.
“I brought the team to the outfield at 5:20 for a pregame talk – one similar to the one we had at 4:20 but with a different focus,” Panther Creek coach Dan Hall said. “We talked about dealing with challenges and obstacles that are outside of the game.”
Heritage, a fourth-place Cap Eight Conference team that overcame a six-game late-season losing streak to make the playoffs, finished with a 16-10 record.
“It came down to the last out of the last game,” Heritage coach Tony Piercy said. “We had a lull during the season, but it wasn’t like we were playing bad baseball. I just told the guys to keep believing. I wish I had a couple more weeks with these guys.”
Panther Creek pitcher Josh Maciejewski limited Heritage to four hits with nine strikeouts. He had a no-hitter through three innings until Graham Upton led off the fourth with a single. He advanced to third and scored on catcher Justin Kunz’s sacrifice fly to deep right-center field for a 1-0 lead.
Lee, who scored both runs after he was hit by a pitch to lead off the fifth and seventh, tied the game when he scored from third on a single by No. 9 hitter Michael Harr.
In the seventh, Lee was safe at second base after the throw on a sacrifice bunt attempt by Corey Hall went to second instead of first. Hall then sent up Eddy Scott as a pinch-hitter for his bunting ability. Scott moved Lee to third and Wall to second.
Heritage intentionally walked Harr to load the bases for a force out, but Moreau followed with his game-winning single on a 1-0 pitch.
“I was having success,” said Moreau, who was 3-of-4. “I knew he was throwing strikes, and I just wanted to find a pitch I could hit.”