The Apex bats came alive late Tuesday as the Cougars won 5-2 at Northern Durham and earned a spot in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletics Association 4A baseball playoffs.
Apex began the fifth inning with three straight hits. Jordan Mann gave Apex a 2-1 lead with an RBI-double off Knights’ pitcher Griff Baker – his second double of the game. Cougars starting pitcher Jake Gregory reached later in the inning thanks to an error, leading to another run.
Mann said Apex coach Mike Valder had provided a good scouting report on what to expect from Baker.
“We knew going into the inning that (Baker) was going to try and hit the low, outside corner,” said Mann. “Coach Valder put us in a good situation. We have a lot of good disciplined batters. We put together a good inning.”
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Northern Durham got a great pitching performance out of Baker, who struck out 12. He fanned the side in the first inning, then two more in the second. Baker got help from his defense in the third, when Mann’s double to right was relayed to home to get Apex’s James Hooks out at the plate.
The Knights scored the game’s first run in the bottom of the first after back-to-back singles and then an RBI-double from Spencer Smith. Gregory settled in after that, allowing only three more hits in 4.2 innings of work.
“Jake was a little nervous, a little tight,” said Valder. “His changeup wasn’t there tonight. We had to make some adjustments, and once we made those adjustments he was pretty good.”
Apex turned to Sam Highfill in the bottom of the fifth to get the last out of the inning, but he then ran into some trouble in the sixth. Highfill gave up a leadoff triple to Pete Vurnakes, then an RBI-double by Smith. But Highfill settled down to get the next three hitters, and finished off the game with a 1-2-3 inning in the bottom of the seventh.
“He’s got ice in his veins. For a young kid, he’s got a bright future,” Valder said of Highfill. “We’ve given him chances like tonight all year and he’s come in and stepped up for us. He threw strikes. That was the key – to throw strikes.”
Seeded 11th in the 4A East after a runners-up finish in the PAC-6, Northern Durham (14-8) bowed out quickly in the NCHSAA tournament after last year’s team made it to the East regional. The Knights led the PAC-6 much of the reular season, but then ended the year losing three of their last five, including Tuesday’s loss to Apex.
The No. 22-seeded Cougars (16-8) on the other hand, after a fourth-place finish in the Southwest Wake Athletics Conference, already have made it farther than last year’s Apex team that lost in the opening round. Apex will face either Cap-8 champion Sanderson on No. 27-seeded East Chapel Hill in this week’s second round.