By RYAN HERMAN
The pieces fell into place for Lincoln County Post 455 this season, and on Tuesday the Cardinals were able to enjoy the spoils of victory.
Post 455 held its team banquet at the newly-opened Homesteads Grill & Taphouse in Lincolnton, and did so for the first time as a team that had reached the American Legion baseball N.C. state tournament.
While its players, coaches, family members and friends dined on steak, shrimp or chicken, the night was reserved to honor a team that accomplished what no other Post 455 team before it had done.
“It put us somewhere we’d never been before. It kind of puts us over the hump,” longtime Cardinals manager Bruce Bolick said. “You always wonder what it’s like to go to the (state) tournament.
“We found out.”
What Lincoln County found out was what can happen when 18 individual baseball players come together as unit to play for a common cause.
“We always had the talent, but we were playing as individuals. Then we started playing together as a team, and that’s what got us there,” outfielder Jacob Hoover said.
Hoover, a fifth-year player and just the second to play for five seasons in Post 455’s history, may have aged out. But what he learned by playing legion baseball will stay with him forever, he said.
“I learned a lot. Coach Bolick, and all my coaches, they’ll teach you how to be a good baseball player and to succeed at baseball, but they also teach you how to succeed in life,” Hoover said. “You learn that.”
For Hayden Deal, a left-handed pitcher who will pitch at Presbyterian College next spring, the 2013 legion baseball season was the best of his career.
“This was my favorite season by far,” said Deal, a 2012 graduate of Bandys. “Making the state tournament was really good. I liked that. This was probably the funnest season I’ve had.”
The Cardinals made history when they not only won an Area IV semifinal series, but won a game that far into the postseason.
Before this year, Lincoln County had never won a game in the semifinals. This year, Post 455 not only won a game, but it eliminated six-time defending Area IV champion Cherryville Post 100 in five games in the process.
While the team came up short against Shelby Post 82 in a winner-take-all Area IV championship game, the fact that it had done something no other Lincoln County team had done before was not lost.
“It meant a lot to me, this being my last year, and making it to the state tournament,” Hoover said. “My whole five years playing it was always a goal of mine to make it to the state tournament.”
The team continued its historic run by winning its opening game of the state tournament in Wilson with a 5-3 win over Area III champion Randolph County. But then a rain delay and subsequent postponement may have dashed the Cardinals’ hopes of winning a state crown.
Lincoln County and defending state champion Wilmington were scheduled to play the late game in the winners’ bracket on Day 2, but rain forced the game to the next morning, which was Sunday. Post 455 was never in it.
What followed the 13-1, seven-inning loss to Post 10 was a 12-0 loss in seven innings to Kernersville later that afternoon.
Lincoln County ended its season at 21-16.
“I’m not the one to make excuses, but we were ready to play (Wilmington) that night. We were really ready to play that night. (The rainout) was big. I don’t want to make an excuse, but it was big,” Hoover said. “We woke up in the morning not ready to play, not ready to play a baseball game. It was deflating because we wanted to play so much that night.
“Wilmington was good. We knew Wilmington was good going in. I mean, they’re the defending state champs. We just didn’t show up to play, we weren’t ready to play, and that’s what happened.”
While the Cardinals would rather have a different ending to their storied season, if it wasn’t for playing as a team, they may have not had the chance to rewrite the history books in the first place.
“As soon as the playoffs started, we really clicked real good together,” Deal said. “After that, it just took off.”