After forcing a third and deciding game with a victory earlier Sunday afternoon at Burlington Athletic Stadium, South Granville was one win away from a state-championship repeat.
It took one bad inning to essentially end those hopes, however, as East Rutherford struck for eight runs in the second inning en route to a 10-5 victory over the Vikings that earned the Cavaliers the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2A baseball title.
Ethan Stewart, who tossed a complete-game gem in East Rutherford’s 8-0 Game 1 victory on Saturday, pitched 3 2/3 innings of one-run ball in relief of starter Kaleb Green to earn the victory in Game 3, a performance that made him the obvious choice for championship series’ Most Valuable Player.
But no doubt East Rutherford’s batters also deserve quite a bit of credit for the Cavaliers’ state title, putting up big numbers against a South Granville staff that had entered the weekend with a miniscule 0.94 E.R.A.
Especially in the eight-run second inning in Game 3, an inning in which nine straight East Rutherford batters reached base at one point and South Granville used three pitchers.
With one out in the frame, Gehrig Christopher doubled to left and Green followed with a single to left off South Granville starting pitcher Justin Bullock to put runners on first and third. Andy Barnette followed with a slow roller toward Vikings third baseman Justin Brown, the senior tried to throw Christopher out at home on the play but the throw got away, Christopher scoring easily to give East Rutherford a 1-0 lead.
A number of big hits followed, as Nick Strickland delivered a two-run triple and both Reece Oliver and Matt Miller added two-run doubles in the inning, Miller’s blast to left making it 8-0.
“It took so much to get through that second game to get to the third game, it takes a lot out of a lot of guys,” said South Granville coach Curt Watkins, whose team won 8-3 in Game 2 to force the winner-take-all finale. “That’s a great team there, that’s the best team we’ve played all year, and we’ve played some top 4A schools.
“They just hit it, and there was nothing we could do about it.”
South Granville (24-5) tried to fight back, scoring runs in each of the second, third, fourth and fifth innings, but the Vikings could never get closer than five the rest of the way. Clay Walters was a bright spot for South Granville, going 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs.
East Rutherford tallied 21 runs and 30 hits over the weekend’s three games.
“We had a couple real good outings, and we hit it all weekend, even in the second game,” East Rutherford coach Bobby Reynolds said. “It was just a series where we knew we were going to have to ride our big boy Ethan Stewart. He did what he’s done all season, match every challenge that he’s had.”
In Game 2, South Granville got a gutty complete-game effort from Holden Laws and struck for three runs in each of the first two innings to build an early lead.
In a contest that was originally halted due to lightning Saturday night with South Granville leading 3-0 in the first inning, Laws threw a seven-hitter and did not allow a run over the final five innings.
He got plenty of early support from Tucker Britt, who had a two-run single in a three-run first inning, and from Justin Brown, who had a two-run double in the second inning. Laws later helped himself with a two-run homer in the fourth inning and Bullock added a solo homer in the seventh.
Alas, the momentum would not quite carry over to Game 3, providing a disappointing ending to an otherwise great run for South Granville seniors Brown, Britt, Spencer Shifflett, Brice Strickland, Zach Pope, Fisher Ford, Ryan Ragland, Demetrius Curry and Mitchell Blackley.
“A lot of good friends, a lot of good memories,” said Brown, when asked what he would take from his time in a South Granville baseball uniform. “In the game of baseball, when you can play with your friends, you can’t forget it.”