When North Lincoln takes the field tonight against Randleman in Game 1 of the best-of-3 2A State Championship Series, it will be like the newcomer taking on the old veteran.
While the Knights will be making their first-ever trip to the state finals, and the first for any Lincoln County team since 1995, the Tigers will be making their fourth trip since 2011. In fact, Randleman has made it to at least the fourth round of the baseball playoffs in each of the past nine seasons.
After a second-round loss to Cuthbertson in 2010, the Tigers began their stretch of nine-straight deep playoff runs.
In 2011, Randleman defeated East Rutherford 2 games to 1 to win the 2A state championship. The following year they got back to the finals, but fell to Whiteville two games to none.
Randleman followed the two state title series appearances with back-to-back fourth round losses, falling to Piedmont in 2013 and Midway in 2014.
In 2015, the Tigers got to the state finals after defeating West Lincoln 7-6 in the fourth round and North Surry two games to one in the Regional Finals. But they lost the championship series in three games to South Granville.
Parkwood knocked Randleman out of the playoffs in the fourth round in 2016 by a 6-4 score, and it was South Granville that took out the Tigers 2-1 in the same round in 2017. And just last year, Randleman fell to North Lenoir in the fourth round by a score of 1-0.
This year’s team is somewhat getting over the hump. The Tigers are returning to the championship series for the first time since 2015 after three straight fourth-round exits. They have been dominant at times under head coach Jake Smith.
Randleman reeled off 12 straight wins to start the season, before losing a 7-3, 13-inning contest to North Davidson. They are currently on a nine-game winning streak, outscoring their opponents 90-22 during that stretch.
The Tigers finished the regular season as co-champions of the PAC-7 2A Conference, but entered the postseason as the conference’s number-two seed after losing two of three meetings to Providence Grove.
Randleman has outscored their opponents 318-97 in 2019, meaning they average just over 10 runs per game. Ramsey Petty, a junior, leads the team with a .415 batting average, with 12 doubles, 36 RBIs and 50 runs scored.
Junior Dawson Edwards is hitting .385 with 4 home runs and 30 runs batted in, and fellow junior Matt Kemp has a .375 average with 5 homers and 36 RBIs.
Owen Strickland, a sophomore, is batting .348 with 40 runs scored on the season and the catcher, Conner Sterling (Jr.), is hitting .333 with 5 home runs and 25 RBIs. Another junior, Dominick Poole, has a batting average of .323 with two homers and 26 runs batted in.
But perhaps the player that everyone will keep an eye on is first baseman Nick Neal. The senior stands 6-foot-4, and weighs in at 270. Neal has hit 10 of Randleman’s 31 home runs this season, with 45 RBIs and a .330 batting average.
The Tigers have a team batting average of .341 and an On Base Percentage of .476. They have a nice mix of power and speed with the 31 home runs to go along with 50 stolen bases.
North Lincoln has a good young team that was destined to have success. With 2 freshmen and 2 sophomores in the starting lineup, the Knights may have arrived a year earlier than expected.
But the Knights know that you have to seize the opportunity when it presents itself. It’s the 2A State Championship Series and you have to play your best if you expect to win. And there are no guarantees of getting back.