Joe Johnson had a hard time deciding which felt better.
Was it his second-inning grand slam that put South Johnston ahead to stay, or was it the bases-loaded strikeout of Western Alamance’s best hitter with the Trojans up by a single run in the sixth?
Either one will do, really.
The sophomore, who has come up big for South Johnston all season, did it again on Friday night as his team eliminated the favored host Warriors 7-4 in the second round of the state 3A baseball playoffs.
The win improved South to 15-9, sending Keith Durham’s team as deep as the third round for the first time since 2008. Western, champions of the Mid-State conference, finished 21-6.
“(Joe) stepped up and got some good swings and one really big swing,” Durham said. “And he stepped up into a tough situation (on the mound). And the rest of the guys did as well. We have a lot of seniors, but we’re still a young team. This was a great atmosphere and a great high school game.
“(The Warriors) did what good teams do. But we did what we needed to do with his strikeout and Drew’s big hit at the end.”
Johnson had picked up the mound victory and hit two homers for the Trojans in their first-round victory over Northern Vance. He has eight homers on the season.
South outhit the hosts, 8-6. Cody Allen chipped in a pair of hits for the Trojans, while Drew Mustgrave had a two-run triple to give the Trojans a four-run lead in the seventh.
Brock Deatherage, the Warriors’ center fielder and leadoff man who will play for N.C. State next season, had a two-run homer and a single. Blake Deatherage added a double and an RBI while Garret Hodge doubled and singled with an RBI for Western.
“The last one is always tough,” Western coach Lance Huff said. “Sixty-three teams will be sad and one will be happy when you’re in the playoffs. You’ve got to win it all to end the season on a good note.
“We just didn’t want to put batters on in front of (Joe) Johnson. We wanted him up with nobody on base. They had three on when he hit his home run and we had one on when Brock hit his.”
Dillon Lee was the winning pitcher in relief, while starter Michael Olenoski, who got into the seventh inning and allowed six runs (four earned), while striking out eight against five walks, took the loss.
South took the 4-0 lead in the second after Allen hit a one-out single, Austin Fowler was hit by a pitch and Josh Stikeleather drew a two-out walk before Joe Johnson ripped a 1-0 offering over the right-field fence.
Western chipped away, scoring two in the second on Brock Deatherage’s one-out, two-run homer to right.
“I was kind of falling off the mound at the end and not throwing a lot of strikes,” said South starter Colby Jones, who lasted 3 1/3. “They have a tough lineup, and (Brock Deatherage) was probably the best hitter I’ve faced all year.”
Western scored again in the fifth as Brock Deatherage singled, stole second, took third on a Lee balk and scored on a one-out sacrifice fly to center from Blake Deatherage.
Joe Johnson came on with one out and two on in the sixth, allowing a fielder’s-choice ball to load the bases before forcing Kevin Burns out at home and striking out Brock Deatherage swinging on three pitches.
“The strikeout was better,” Joe Johnson said. “I threw him a curve ball, came back with a soft curve on the outside and came back with a fastball on the outside. I know he’s going to State next year. I was glad to be able to shut him down.
“This is a great win. We’re all playing as a team and the intensity is high every game. This is a good place to be.”
South put it away with three runs in the seventh, including Mustgrave’s two-out triple off Blake Deatherage.
“We needed some more runs because we knew they wouldn’t quit,” Mustgrave said. “But we thought we were the better team, and we did what we needed to do to win at the end.”
Western got a one-out run in the bottom of the frame on back-to-back doubles from Blake Detherage and Hodge. After Olenoski singled, Kevin Burns hit a soft liner to first baseman Joey Matthews whose dive to the bag doubled Olenoski for the final out.