By RYAN HERMAN
DENVER –– Bruce Bolick instructed his players to pack their suitcases, and if they didn’t have one, to get one. Then came the traditional Gatorade bath.
The Lincoln County Cardinals, who had never won an Area IV semifinal series game until last week, are headed to the American Legion state baseball tournament in Wilson.
But first, Post 455 must make a trip to Shelby to try and win its first Area IV championship.
Danny Sullivan hit a key grand slam and Justin Norton again came up big in the playoffs as Lincoln County downed Cherryville Post 100, 5-4, on Saturday night to win the best-of-five series three games to two and clinched its first berth in history to the Area IV finals and the eight-team state tournament.
Lincoln County will take on top-seeded Shelby Post 82 (33-7) in a winner-take-all title game at 7 p.m. today. Shelby defeated Hickory 5-3 on Sunday –– their Game 4 was postponed Saturday night due to rain –– to take their semifinal series three games to one.
Saturday night’s Game 5 between Post 455 (20-13) and Post 100 went as expected –– down to the final out, and so did Norton.
On pitch No. 128, Norton got Cody Dellinger to groundout on a bunt attempt to the catcher, which ended Cherryville’s reign atop Area IV and put the Cardinals in a never-before-seen position.
It’s what this season was all about.
“This means a lot,” Post 455 shortstop Randal Ortiz said. “Danny with the homer –– that’s what we do, we hit the ball hard and play good defense.
“This feels awesome. It’s a big feeling.”
Having let a two-games-to-none lead in a best-of-five series slip away for the second time this postseason, Lincoln County found itself trailing early yet again in a win-or-go-home Game 5.
And just like last time, the Cardinals had a sense for the dramatic to keep playing.
Back-to-back singles by J.T. Bowden and Clay Hodges started the home-half of the decisive fifth inning, and with Ortiz in position to give himself up on a sacrifice bunt, Heath King hit him with a pitch to load the bases for Sullivan with nobody out.
Sullivan worked the count full on King, who had already thrown more than 85 pitches. Having nowhere to put him and already facing a small strike zone, King let the fastball fly.
So did Sullivan.
The ball cleared the left-field fence with ease and gave the Cardinals the lead for good.
Jacob Hoover singled after the homer, then went to second and third on a pair of wild pitches before scoring on Bradley Hallman’s sac fly.
Although things got tight at the end, the 5-1 cushion was enough to send this year’s Lincoln County team into the history books.
“I can remember being a first-year team,” Bolick said. “It’s really nice.”
After Caleb Narron’s RBI single in the third gave Cherryville (18-15) a 1-0 lead, Norton settled in nicely until things got dicey again in the seventh.
Norton, who improved to 4-0 in the playoffs, fanned eight of 13 during a three-plus inning stretch. But in the seventh he was tagged for two runs on a two-run back-side homer by Clay Fuller that landed near where Sullivan’s grand slam came to rest.
Norton gave up another single to Hunter Jackson, but got a pitcher-friendly 4-6-3 double play to erase Jackson and the threat of another run.
In the eighth a leadoff walk to Josh Beam set things up for Brett Huff, who plated Beam on a groundout to third that made it 5-4.
That was as close as Cherryville got, and with the loss went its record streak of six straight Area IV championships.
Norton finished off Post 100 with a six-pitch ninth.
“It was a well-played game. It was not decided until the last pitch,” Cherryville manager Bobby Reynolds said. “We gave up four runs on one swing of the bat, and that generally hurts and sometimes you never get a chance to make that up.”
“He’s got a lot of heart and a lot of stuff,” Bolick said of Norton. “He’s an A-No. 1 Legion pitcher.
“He’s probably as good as I’ve ever had in Legion ball. He’s a real ace.”
Bolick has been the only manager Post 455 has known, starting the program himself in 1990.
Saturday night’s Gatorade bath has been a long time coming.
“This is fantastic. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Bolick said.
Norton struck out 10 and gave up four runs on a walk and 10 hits to go to 6-1 on the season. King, his counterpart, pitched on two days rest and hit 100 pitches after 4 2-3 innings.
The right-hander allowed five runs on eight hits, walked three, hit one and struck out one.
Derrick Braun struck out four and gave up two hits in 3 1-3 innings of scoreless relief for Post 100.
Narron (2-for-4, RBI), Dalton Towery (2-for-4, run) and Hunter Jackson (2-for-4, run) led Post 100’s offense, in addition to Fuller’s homer.
Sullivan doubled in the seventh, Bryan Seymour went 3-for-4 with a double and Bowden singled twice and scored a run to lead Post 455.
Cherryville 8, Lincoln County 7: Post 100 let a seven-run lead slip away but got a key hit from Derrick Braun late as it staved off elimination on Friday to force a Game 5.
Cherryville hit three home runs in the first five innings, highlighted by Brett Huff’s three-run blast in the fifth to stake itself to a 7-0 lead. But the Cardinals came back.
Danny Sullivan hit a two-run home run in the seventh, then drove in two more on a double in the eighth to help Lincoln County tie it at 7-all.
Brandon Alexander earned the win in relief of Cameron High. Tyger McRee took the loss.
Josh Beam and Alexander also homered for Cherryville, which hit six home runs in the series.
Series stars: Cherryville’s Brett Huff and Clay Fuller each homered twice and drove in six runs. Danny Sullivan had 10 hits, two home runs and 11 RBIs and Clay Hodges went 13-for-23, scored six runs and drove in five for Lincoln County. Third-string catcher J.T. Bowden, forced behind the plate due to injuries this season, had six hits for the Cardinals. Post 100‘s Derrick Braun pitched 8 2-3 innings of relief in two appearances in the series, giving up three runs, two earned, on eight hits and two walks. Braun struck out nine –– five in five-plus innings in Game 3.
Notes: The teams hit a combined 10 home runs in the series. … Cherryville won back-to-back one-run games to force a Game 5. … The teams combined for 14 errors, nine by Cherryville. … The state tournament will be held at Fleming Stadium in Wilson and will begin on Friday.