There were some tears, smiles and lots of hugs to go around as, for the last time this season, the Athens Drive baseball team broke from a postgame huddle.
None of them had experienced this bittersweet feeling before in high school.
After reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the Jaguars fell 2-1 at Fayeteville’s Pine Forest High in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs Friday night.
The Jaguars started the year 1-7 overall but won 12 of their last 18 to storm into the playoffs and knock out Mid-South Conference champ Cape Fear in the first round.
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“I’m proud of these guys,” Athens coach Ryan Westbrook said. He took a long time after the game “just making sure they understood how special what we did, was. To go from 1-7, to making the playoffs, to win a playoff game, to be in the middle of this game. We just didn’t get breaks tonight.”
Despite being no-hit through 3 and 2/3 innings, Athens Drive held a 1-0 lead after Sam Enders scored on a groundout by Evan Poole in the first. Pine Forest pitcher Antonio Reneo walked three batters in that inning, but settled down thereafter to finish with 5 and 2/3 innings pitched with five strikeouts and two hits given up.
But the Trojans didn’t gain the lead until the bottom of the sixth, when the Pine Forest bats started to “hit’em where they ain’t.”
J.T. Stone led off the rally with a single and scored two batters later on a sac bunt after a throwing error and infield single moved him to third. Kendall St. Peter develiverd a two-out single to bring in Grant Bennett.
Athens Drive came to the plate with its 7-8-9 hitters and a season on the line, but couldn’t get a hit off reliever Isaiah Bennett, who picked up the win by sitting down four of the five batters he faced.
Anthony Fraraccio singled and Daniel Dyson doubled for Athens’ only hits of the game. Lane Gorrell went the distances for the Jags giving up seven hits (four thru six innings) and striking out two.
The defense was key for the Jaguars. First baseman Evan Gallagher made a sliding play in foul terrirotry for an out, Gorrell snagged a line drive back at him to double up a runner at first and center fielder Keith Markovich saved a run by running down and laying out for a long flyball near the fence.
“Our bats let us down tonight. And unfortunately in the game of baseball, that happens to everybody. It just so happens it happened to us in the playoffs,” Westbrook said. “They were hitting the ball well and right at us and I knew the ball was going to fall for them at some point and I knew one (run) wasn’t going to hold up. ... Tonight it just looked like we couldn’t get comfortable.”
Even as the Jaguars were climbing into the playoff race, Westbrook’s Jags didn’t realize how good it could be until it went 3-0 in one week with wins, in increasing difficutly, against Southeast Raleigh, Cary and Holly Springs (which led the Southwest Wake at the time).
“We knew there was a chance we could make the playoffs but we knew we were going to have to make a serious run,” Westbrook said. “After that, you could see everybody have a little bit more confidence in what they were doing.”
The team returns much of its core for next year. Westbrook hopes that this year’s confidence-building run is a catalyst for things to come.