The North Lincoln Knights (9-13, 8-4) wrapped up their regular season in second place in the Southern Foothills Conference after splitting with the Bessemer City Yellow Jackets Friday.
In the second game, junior pitcher Josh Belk dominated for the Knights, hurling a two-hit complete game. Belk struck out 11 and allowed three earned runs.
â€œHe gave up a double with the bases loaded, but after that he sat them down — one, two, three,â€ Knightsâ€™ head coach Sean Andrews said.
As important as Belk was on the mound, Kyle Baker was almost just as important at the plate. Baker went 3-for-3 with a single, double and a homerun with two RBIs. In his last at-bat, missing only a triple for the cycle, he was intentionally walked with a man on. Just for good measure, he also scored three runs.
â€œCoach, I was hot tonight. I was feeling it. They werenâ€™t going to get me out,â€ Andrews reported his junior outfielder as saying.
Baker has made solid contact over the past couple of games, but hasnâ€™t had many hits to show for it. Assistant coach Keith Alexander encouraged him to not change anything and told him the hits would eventually come.
â€œIf I can get him going (Baker); Trent is stroking it right now. If I can get three of them going in one game and Belk pitching, weâ€™re going to be a tough team to beat,â€ Andrews said.
All three Yellow Jacketsâ€™ runs came on Shane Andrewsâ€™ three-RBI double.
North Lincoln senior Ryan Pendleton, usually a designated hitter, went 2-for-4 with two RBIs to complement Bakerâ€™s big game.
Sophomore Trent Hopkins finished the season 23-of-23 in stolen base attempts. Using a blend of excellent field-awareness and speed, Hopkins always has the green light from Andrews.
But did Andrews ever think a â€˜perfectâ€™ season was in the cards for Hopkins on the base paths?
â€œNo. Itâ€™s phenomenal. It shows that his work ethic is paying off for him,â€ he said. â€œThe kid never stops; I would love to have his energy. Every time he gets on base, it doesnâ€™t matter whoâ€™s throwing or behind the plate- heâ€™s going to try to steal.â€
â€œIâ€™ve told Kyle (Baker), â€˜You donâ€™t have to swing to protect him anymore,â€ Andrews said.
By winning their final outing versus Bessemer City, who won the regular season title, the Knights completed an amazing turnaround.
Beginning the season 1-9, it looked as if the Knightsâ€™ season was lost, but they had other plans.
â€œTo say I didnâ€™t expect us to get into the state playoffs, that would be a lie. That was my goal for the year,â€ said Andrews. â€œI wanted to try to get a record above .500 and to get into the state playoffs for these seniors.â€
Those seniors are Pendleton, Jeremy Grove, Cory Walton and Trevor Cavazos. Andrews also wanted it (a state playoff berth) for his juniors to get them â€˜big gameâ€™ experience. Next year, heâ€™s hoping to make a run deep into the 1A State Playoffs.
Andrews believes certain people have been instrumental in the teamâ€™s astounding turnaround.
â€œI want to thank my parents, the faculty and most of all my wife, Carmen, and nieces Arin and Alexis.â€
â€œWithout them none of this would be possible,â€ Andrews said.
North Lincoln will host seventh-seed Highland Tech Monday at 4:30 p.m. The Knights defeated the Rams 14-3 in their previous meeting.
If the Knights win, they will play the winner of Maiden/Hendersonville.
North Lincoln 100 220 0â€”5 8 1
Bessemer 000 030 0â€”3 2 0
The Yellow Jackets won the continuation game 4-3.
Pitcher Jake Rhyne worked three and two-thirds, struck out three and gave up only two earned runs, while scattering five hits.
Belk worked three innings and struck out five batters. The five strikeouts joined the nine strikeouts he had through the first four innings, giving him 14 strikeouts in the game.
The junior allowed four hits, three earned runs and five walks.
â€œWhen he (Josh) is on, heâ€™s on. When he gets in some trouble with some walks, he settles down and gets a strikeout or a groundout,â€ Andrews said.
â€œHeâ€™s got some confidence in his infield theyâ€™ll make the plays behind him. Earlier in the season, he didnâ€™t have that,â€ he added of his pitcher that struck out 25 batters in two games at Mike Mahaffey Field Friday.
Anthony Day went 1-for-3 with two RBIs to lead Bessemer City. Rhyne also had a RBI.
Hopkins went 2-for-4 with a RBI and a stolen base. Alex Loftin was 1-for-3 with a RBI and run scored.
Bessemer 130 000 0â€”4 4 2
North Lincoln 000 030 0â€”3 5 1
by John Mark Brooks