So much for the theory that late-year excellence portends postseason success in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A baseball playoffs.
Panther Creek, a No. 26 seed, entered Tuesday’s opening-round showdown at West Johnston with three losses in its last four games, including a lopsided setback against Fuquay-Varina in the regular season finale.
On the other side of the field, the seventh-seeded Wildcats were rolling, closing with seven victories over their final eight outings to rally for the Greater Neuse River Conference championship.
But West Johnston never found the lead Tuesday, and a late comeback fell short as the Catamounts advanced with a 6-5 victory to move into a second-round meeting with New Hanover on the road.
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“We’ve got a good club,” said Panther Creek coach Dan Hall, whose squad improved to 13-11 overall. “We are just in a conference that, if you are off your game, someone is going to take advantage of it.
“We did some good things early in the year and started off 6-1. But in the conference, we started to have some trouble hitting the ball. We you saw tonight was the rejuvenation of the fire on offense that we had. We didn’t score a lot of runs the last few games (of the regular season), but I told our guys that this was a new start. We were able to scratch what we had done the last few weeks.”
The Catamounts surged ahead 5-0 after two frames, with only one of the markers being earned as the Wildcats (14-11) were victimized by a trio of costly errors.
With starting pitcher Garrett Russell cruising along, Panther Creek tacked on an insurance marker when sophomore Bryceson Hernandez led off the top of the fifth with a solo home run over the right-field fence.
“I’ve been struggling at the plate a bit, so I was looking for a good pitch to hit,” Hernandez said. “I got a low, inside pitch and it felt good as soon as I hit it. I’m still trying to believe it because it was my first home run since I was 12 years old.”
The longball heroics from Hernandez put Panther Creek in what looked to be a comfortable position at 6-1, but West Johnston had other ideas, striking for a quartet of markers in the bottom of the sixth to chase Russell in favor of senior reliever Coleman Barnacascel.
Trevor Wilson had the biggest blast of the uprising with a two-run double with two outs, and he would advance to third on an attempted relay throw to home plate.
That would prove to be the end of the night for Russell, and Barnacascel entered and recorded a clutch strikeout to help the Catamounts maintain their slim one-run advantage.
West Johnston would have one more chance in the bottom of the seventh, and North Carolina A&T signee Tony Mack drew a leadoff walk before Barnacascel notched two strikeouts and a fly ball to end the proceedings.
“I love the pressure of that situation,” Barnacascel said. “You come in and know you can’t make mistakes. I was just trying to be perfect.”
Panther Creek is in the state playoffs for only the second time in the school’s 10-year history. The other occasion came in 2014, when the Catamounts rolled all the way to the fourth round.
“There is some pressure to live up to from that year,’’ Barnacascel said. “We have high expectations for ourselves.”
West Johnston had entered the postseason with some lofty expectations of its own, but the Wildcats were unable to continue their recent torrid run through the GNRC.
“We were focused and ready to play, but the ball didn’t bounce our way,” said Wildcats’ coach Joey Worley. “We still had some fight in us – we just came up short. We played hard and battled. We could have rolled over after being down 5-0, but we didn’t. We are a young team with one freshman, two seniors and six juniors starting. It’s tough -- sometimes early on our youth showed.”
Still, the Wildcats claimed their fourth GNRC title in school history and went 12-2 in conference play before being derailed Tuesday by the Catamounts.