The playoff field for the Northwest 1A Conference is set.
There will be one more game on Friday, to decide the conference tournament championship, but the last unanswered question was answered by North Stokes in Wednesday’s first semifinal game, as the Vikings secured a spot in the final, and more importantly, the league’s No. 2 seed for the upcoming state playoffs with a 6-2 victory over East Surry.
“These kids have done a fantastic job of turning this program around,” said North Stokes coach Stephen Sauer. “We were 6-20 two years ago and 10-16 a year ago. I couldn’t be prouder of what they have done.
“These kids are gamers. They just love to play the game of baseball.”
The two teams had swapped shutout victories on the other’s home field during the regular season and beat every other NW1A team to end up tied for second place at 7-3. However, the Cardinals won a draw for the second seed during Saturday’s coaches’ meeting, giving them a bye into the semifinals of the conference tournament and provisionally, the No. 2 spot in the playoffs, meaning a likely home game in the first round.
The only way for the Vikings (17-9) to reverse the verdict of the draw would be to face and then beat East Surry on the field. They earned the opportunity by battering Atkins 13-2 on Monday, setting up a rubber match with the Cardinals at neutral Mount Airy High School.
The stage seemed set for a pitcher’s duel. Back on March 25, North Stokes’ Layton Helms pitched a three-hit shutout that was just good enough to beat fellow sophomore Kain Kiser, who pitched nearly as well in taking a hard-luck 1-0 loss. The two were matched up again on Wednesday, and the only question was which team’s hitters would make better adjustments in the rematch between the two.
At first, it appeared as though the Cardinals would have the edge in that regard. Kiser kept the Vikings off the board in the top of the first inning, and then took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning when John Marion led off with a walk, advanced to second and third on a passed ball and a steal of third, and scored on a sacrifice bunt by Wyatt Guy.
North Stokes finally got to Kiser starting in the second inning, however. Alex Sams and Helms opened the frame with back-to-back hits, but he buckled down and held the damage to a single run despite an error later in the inning. The Cardinals regained the lead at 2-1 in the bottom half of the second thanks in large part to Kiser himself. He led off with a double, moved to third on a Luke Horton sacrifice, and then scored when Trevor Hauser laid down a safety squeeze bunt of his own. Helms quickly fielded the ball and raced to tag Kiser out as he headed for the plate, but dropped the ball when they collided.
As a pitcher, however, he couldn’t maintain the lead he had bestowed upon himself.
The Vikings’ third opened with a double by Logan Stevens and an RBI single by Chase Vaden to tie the game again. Later in the inning, Sams was hit by a pitch, and with two out, Austin Shelton hit a towering fly to center which Cardinal center fielder Alex Eubanks appeared to misjudge. The ball fell in and two more runs scored, extending the North Stokes lead to 4-2.
Sauer said that his team had made adjustments since they last saw Kiser six weeks ago, and it paid dividends.
“We have changed our approach to hitting this year. We’re a lot further along than we were earlier in the season,” he said. “We’re different in our approach at the plate, and we’ve faced some other decent pitchers who have helped us improve.”
East Surry still had chances to come back. The Cardinals loaded the bases with one out in the last of the third, but Kiser struck out and Horton popped up to end the threat. North Stokes extended its lead to 5-2 in the fourth on consecutive hits by Stevens and Vaden, after which Kiser pitched a scoreless fifth and AJ Wilson did the same in the final two frames.
However, the Cardinals kept misfiring with runners on base. They left two on base in the fourth, put two on with no one out in the sixth and then went strikeout-popout-strikeout, and then had two more on base in the last of the seventh when the game ended.
“We had guys on base, two or three at a time, but we couldn’t get the right hit at the right time to put some runs across,” said East Surry coach Chad Freeman. “The effort was there, but the execution wasn’t always there.”
Helms went the distance and earned his second win of the season over the Cardinals.
The win puts North Stokes into Friday’s championship game against regular-season winner Walkertown. The Vikings will be the second seed in the playoffs regardless of the outcome of that game, while East Surry (14-10) remains an automatic qualifier by virtue of being the league’s No. 3 team. However, the Cardinals probably will not get a first-round home game as a third seed.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.