The Cherryville Ironmen had their backs against the wall. To avoid missing the 1A State Playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Ironmen had to beat the North Lincoln Knights.
They were up to the task, beating the Knights at North Lincoln 7-0 to win the Southern Foothills Tournament Championship.
Surprisingly enough, it was Cherryvilleâ€™s underclassmen that helped the Ironmen clinch the number two spot in the 1A State Playoffs, knocking the Knights to number three in the conference.
Sophomore leftfielder Al Benson went 4-for-4 and turned in two spectacular catches near the fence. On both plays, Benson robbed Kyle Baker and Ryan Pendleton of extra-base hits.
Baker sent a deep blast to leftfield that probably would have hit the top of fence had Benson not leapt and with one hand hauled it in.
â€œThe coach always tells me to come in, but I kind of wanted to play back, because the game before this they were bombing them out there, so I could get to them,â€ Benson said.
Another sophomore, pitcher Brian Gardo, pitched beyond his years. Gardo tossed a complete game and gave up just five hits in earning the victory in shutout fashion.
â€œI just came out there and tried my best. I threw strikes and the defense caught the ball,â€ Gardo said.
Not to be outdone by the pair of underclassmen, senior rightfielder Jarred Fuller went 3-for-3 with two RBIs for the Ironmen.
Centerfielder Jeremy Craft found the gap in the top of second, scoring Tripp McSwain. The next batter, Fuller, found a hole in between second and third, scoring Seth Freeman and Craft for a 3-0 lead.
The Knights showed life in the bottom of the third. Pendleton, a senior designated hitter, was robbed of a double by Benson to lead off the inning.
T.J. Skidmore then followed with an infield base hit. After a strikeout, Skidmore stole second then leadoff batter Michael Gibson walked. Despite two outs, Knights head coach Sean Andrews decided to roll the dice and let Alex Loftin drag bunt.
The move paid off as Loftin reached, loading the bases. Although Gardo was in a perilous situation, he got a strikeout to end the Knightsâ€™ threat.
With momentum on their side, Benson led off the top of the fourth with a single. Back-to-back North Lincoln errors allowed Cherryville to score Benson and McSwain.
After Craft walked and Fuller sacrificed, Steven Hoyle continued his monstrous conference tournament, sending a liner to right for two more RBIs.
After pitching a one-hitter last time against the Ironmen, junior ace Josh Belk did not have the same success this time. Belk worked six innings, allowing nine hits and five earned runs.
Fuller insisted Belk was the same pitcher he was the first time they faced him. It was just a matter of the Ironmen coming together.
â€œHe was no different. He kept the ball in the same place, his curve ball was equally challenging,â€ he said. â€œWe came together as a team and strung together some hits, which is something weâ€™ve had trouble doing all season.â€
Perhaps Fuller appreciated the win as much or more than any of his teammates, being a senior.
â€œWhen itâ€™s your senior year and youâ€™ve been playing your life and it looks like it could be the last game and you have a chance to go a few more games in the state playoffs, you feel like a whole new man after a game like this,â€ he said.
The Ironmen have won four games straight and appear to be peaking at the right time.
â€œWe feel real good about it. They beat us the first time and Hendersonville beat us, and we were tied with Hendersonville, but we played a good game and just hope we can win a couple of games in the playoffs,â€ Benson said.
Ironmen head coach Henry Jones believed the win wasnâ€™t a magical formula, it just came from playing solid baseball.
â€œGardo did what he had to do and the defense made the plays and thatâ€™s about the story of the game. We didnâ€™t make it hard,â€ he said.
â€œWe were dead, we were tired and anytime we hit it, they caught it,â€ Knights head coach Sean Andrews said.
Cherryville 030 400 0â€”7 10 1
West Lincoln 000 000 xâ€”0 5 2
Observations from Thursdayâ€™s game- The Knights turned the lone double-play in the seventh inning. Relief pitcher Chris Hogue fielded and threw to Loftin, who jumped and threw in the same motion to complete the play.
Centerfielder Craft turned in a sliding catch in the bottom of the fifth.
Loftin nearly threw out Benson after making a diving stab, seemingly out of nowhere, in the top of the fifth.
Shortstop Alex Loftin turned in several stellar defensive plays for the Knights in Thursdayâ€™s championship loss. Chris Dean / LTN Photo
by John Mark Brooks