The home dugout at Spring Creek greeted visiting Princeton with a message printed across the front facing the field:
It served as a subtle reminder that Spring Creek and Princeton may have split their regular-season games, but entering the rubber game in the post-season the Gators maintained an edge as the Carolina 1A Conference champions for a second straight season.
Spring Creek won that rubber game, 4-3, with a run in the bottom of the seventh inning Wednesday night in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A playoffs.
The loss ended 14th-seeded Princeton’s season with a 20-7 overall record. Sixth-seeded Spring Creek improved to 19-6 overall and advanced to a fourth round game at home against No. 7 seed East Carteret.
“Anytime you play good team like Spring Creek, you know this is a possibility,” said Princeton Coach Bruce Proctor of the season coming to an end. “They’re a great team with good players, good kids and good coaches. It’s a class program.
“My team gave me everything it had this year. We had nine seniors that led us all year. This is one of the best groups I’ve ever coached.”
The three games were all different.
Spring Creek won a pitchers’ duel on March 22, 1-0. Princeton routed the Gators in the rematch on April 26, 9-2.
This time they matched each other throughout the night with neither team leading by more than a run. Spring Creek scored first in the bottom of the second for a 1-0 lead.
Princeton answered with two runs in the top of the third. Tanner Flowers was hit by a pitch and scored when Matt Daughtry followed with a triple into the right-field corner. Tyler Ricks added an RBI single, but the 2-1 lead was short-lived.
Spring Creek tied the game when Sawyer Smith led off with a double and scored on a fielder’s choice that included a throwing error. The Gators took a 3-2 lead in the fifth, but Princeton tied the game in the sixth when Alex Hickman doubled, advanced to third on Mason Rachels’ infield single and scored on a throwing error.
A spongy infield contributed to slow rolling balls and infielders hurrying throws.
“We had a pile of rain (Tuesday) night,” Spring Creek Coach Heath Whitfield said. “We probably bailed 50 gallons of water off the field by buckets. The field was very soft, but we had to get the game in.”
Spring Creek’s Will Rouse came on in relief in the fourth inning to pick up with win in addition to scoring the winning run. He led off the bottom of the seventh with a single, was sacrificed bunted to second, advanced to third on a throwing error. He scored when he took advantage of a big lead off third and Kane Geelan’s slow roller to second base gave him time to beat the throw home.
“We knew this game would be a dog fight all the way through,” Rouse said. “We didn’t come into the game coasting – that’s for sure.”
Princeton’s nine-member class of 2016 included Mason Rachels, Nick Phillips, Jarrett Pearce, Hunter Mitchell, Seth Price, Matthew Boyette, Rick Bartholomew, Jasper Cook, Daughtry and Ricks.