Garner Cleveland: Sports

Willis’ blast keeps West Johnston win streak going

One big swing of the bat was all West Johnston needed Tuesday night.

Senior Jacob Willis’ three-run homer with two out in the third broke a tie and gave the Wildcats enough offense to prevail 4-2 over Knightdale.

The win gave the Wildcats (11-7, 7-3 Greater Neuse River 4A) a sweep of the season series with the Knights (7-10, 5-6). West won the earlier meeting 5-0 on March 22 in Knightdale.

Both senior starting pitchers had complete games, Justin Carroll (6-3) for the Wildcats and Dylon Alexander (5-4) for the Knights. Chris Hellriegel homered for Knightdale.

“Justin’s always going to battle,” West coach Mike Jacobs said. “He’s a competitor who will put the team on his shoulders and carry them as far as he can go.

“Our offense gave us enough, and Jacob had a really big hit for us. We need to be better with runners on second and third and with two outs, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

Turning Point: Willis’ first homer of the season, with two out on one 1-0 count.

The Knights led 1-0 heading into the third before the hosts rallied for four runs. Jack Sherrill led off with a double and scored on a wild pitch, followed by a walk to Adam Morrison. After Carroll singled to left, Willis lifted a blast over the left-field fence.

“It was a little bit up and in, right where I like it,” said catcher Willis, who will play at Barton next season. “We’ve picked it up a lot and we’re playing good baseball right now. We’re hitting and doing just about everything right.”

Putting up Numbers: Carroll, who finished with two hits, struck out eight against four walks in a three-hitter.

He struck out four straight early in the game, including a 1-2-3 second inning.

“I seem to start off slow a lot, but I’m in pretty good shape so I usually finish strong,” said Carroll, bound for UNC Wilmington in the fall. “My fastball is my strength, but my curve was working really well today.

“Knightdale has a good lineup from top to bottom, and their eight-hole hitter (Logan Pope) got their first hit. You’ve got to compete throughout that batting order.”

Unsung hero: West first baseman Sterling Atkinson, who played some web-gem defense.

He caught two tough liners, one for an unassisted double play on Hellriegel’s screamer down the line with the bases loaded and one out in the third.

“(Atkinson) made two plays that saved them three or four runs,” Knightdale coach Andrew Vaglio said. “If that one ball had gotten past him into the (right-field) corner down there we probably would have scored three runs. We made one mistake pitching-wise that was a three-run homer, and those plays were the difference in the game.”

Feeling the Impact: The Wildcats’ fourth straight victory and the season sweep left them in third place and the Knights in fifth, making it almost certain West will finish in the upper half of the conference. Knightdale will probably finish fourth or fifth.

“We’re playing good baseball right now,” said Knightdale senior Hellriegel, who also had his first homer of the season. “They’ve got a great pitcher and they got the three-run homer, but we’ll come back. I think we can win all the rest of our conference games.”