Special to LTN
HENDERSONVILLE — Lincoln Charter pitcher Christian Hilty set the table for Justin Sparks in the third inning, and the Hendersonville sophomore did exactly what a No.4 hitter is supposed to: he cleaned it up.
Sparks blasted a 3-1 fastball over the left-field fence for a three-run homer that turned a 2-1 Eagle advantage into a 4-2 deficit as part of a five-run frame, and homestanding Hendersonville never trailed again in ending Lincoln Charter’s storybook season with a 7-3 victory in the fourth round of the 1A state playoffs.
The Bearcats advanced to face either South Stanly or East Surry in the best-of-three semifinals, while the Eagles finish their season with a 20-3 record.
“We’re a family, and I treat them like they’re my own kids. So when I see them upset, it’s tough to take as an adult,” Lincoln Charter coach Mike Hartshorne said with red-rimmed eyes following an emotional post-game meeting with his players. “I’ve never been more proud of a baseball team. You hear coaches say that, but honestly it’s been a great season, it’s been a miracle season. They’ve accomplished so much. We’ve been on the road every game, we’ve been the underdog, but we’ve found a way to fight. And you know what? We came out of here with respect.”
Indeed, the Eagles – who made the playoffs as a wild card because they will not join a conference until next season – were far from overmatched by highly regarded Bearcat pitcher Samuel Linn. Linn, a lanky 6-foot-7 junior, has overpowered his competition this season, using a mid-80s fastball to post a 0.49 ERA, but it seemed he had to battle for every out on Tuesday.
Eagle batters notched eight hits over six innings, going down in order only once while drawing two walks and forcing Linn, who has started every game for HHS in the playoffs, to throw more than 110 pitches. But eight runners left on base and eight strikeouts against Linn proved to be their offensive undoing.
“We heard (Linn) threw 85, 88, so we did some things in the cage, some speed drills to get their hands a little faster, and it paid off,” Hartshorne said. “We were hitting the ball and putting it in play.”
Linn struck out the first two batters of the game, but Hilty and Zach Hollar made him throw 15 pitches to do it. The next two Lincoln Charter batters were more efficient, as Hunter Dodson smoked an 0-2 pitch into left center for a double and David Scoggins laced Linn’s next offering down the right-field line for a run-scoring single to make it 1-0.
Hendersonville struck back quickly in its half of the first as lead-off hitter Caleb Williamson doubled and came around on Bradley’ Schmidt’s single.
Lincoln Charter retook the advantage in the third when Hilty reached on an error and came around on Nathanial Scoggins’ two-out single, but again the advantage was short-lived as Hendersonville jumped on Hilty in the bottom half of the inning. Schmidt singled and Derrick Doyle walked to bring up Sparks, who delivered his ninth, 10th and 11th RBIs of the playoffs.
The Bearcats added two more runs, unearned, when Henry Clements doubled, went to third on an outfield error and came around on another error on Shawn Rogers’ squibber to first. Rogers promptly stole second and was driven in by Troy Carter’s single.
Hendersonville’s final run, in the sixth, was also unearned. Doyle walked, Clements singled, and with two outs Rogers’ hard grounder to short ended up careening into the outfield for an error instead of the inning-ending putout.
Lincoln Charter’s final run came in the fifth. Dodson doubled and was plated by Nathanial Scoggins’ deep fly to center.
Hilty ended up allowing nine hits and six runs, four earned, over four innings to take the loss. He struck out five and walked two.
Bearcat fans had expected to see hard-throwing lefty David Scoggins, who has committed to Liberty, on the mound to start the game. Instead, Scoggins struck out four and allowed a single hit in two innings of relief.
“It was Hilty’s turn in the rotation,” Hartshorne said. “We threw Hunter (Dodson) on Friday. David came in and closed, and he needed the rest. I’m not going to jeopardize his arm and risk injury to him.”
Hendersonville outhit Lincoln Charter 10-9. Sparks went 2-for-4 and is now 8-for-13 in the playoffs. Carter was 2-for-3 while Schmidt and Clements were each 2-for-4 for Hendersonville, which improves to 20-5.
David Scoggins was 3-for-3 with a walk for the Eagles, while Ian Chryst was 2-for-3 and Dodson 2-for-4.