South Stokes wasn’t even guaranteed a berth in the state playoffs when the Western Piedmont Athletic Conference Tournament began on Monday night.
Now, the Sauras are just one more victory away from not only going to the playoffs, but actually hosting their first-round game.
The Walnut Cove nine, who were one of four WPAC teams who entered the last week of the regular season with a chance to win or share the league title under certain circumstances, avenged the two losses they suffered to North Surry in that week, downing them 4-2 in Friday’s second semifinal of the league tournament. The Sauras will take on Forbush (17-7) on Saturday at 11 a.m. for the championship, also at North Surry High School.
North Surry, which will enter the playoffs at 16-9, will be rooting for the regular-season champion Falcons to win. If South Stokes upsets Forbush, the Sauras will take the No. 2 seed out of the WPAC for the state playoffs.
“Not only winning the championship, but getting a home playoff game is something big to play for, and that’s what our goal is,” said South Stokes coach Shane Worth. “We came into this season expecting to be here, and we’re here. We’ve been here two times before and we want to finish the deal this time.”
South Stokes (14-11) drew the No. 3 seed for the league tournament at last Saturday’s coaches’ meeting, but final positions when teams are tied at the end of the regular season are determined by the conference tournament. The Sauras had to get a win over hapless Carver on Monday to assure their playoff berth, which was the easy part. Friday’s task was much tougher; North Surry had bested them 3-2 and 3-0 when the teams played twice last week.
The third meeting started out as a dogfight before South Stokes finally took control in the middle innings. The Sauras took a 2-0 lead in their first swings against Greyhound starting pitcher Mack Cooke. Mason Dutton led off with a walk, stole second base, and came in to score when Jake Carter smashed a double to deep center field. South Stokes extended the lead to 2-0 thanks to a two-out error committed by North Surry, but the Hounds got out of the inning when Cooke struck out Ozzy Polifka with two more runners in scoring position.
North Surry tied it up in the bottom of the second. Cooke legged out an infield single leading off, and then Mason Gwyn hit a towering blast off Stokes pitcher Carter that sailed over the left-field fence to even the score.
The Sauras quickly regained the lead in their next turn at bat. Tanner Birkholz led off with a single and scored on a one-out double from Anthony Smith. The Hounds had a golden opportunity to get the run back and even take the lead in the bottom half of the third. With two out, Kendal Tucker walked and Brady Watts singled to center, sending Tucker to third. Watts then stole second base with Cooke at the plate, but the latter struck out on a full-count pitch to end the inning.
“We couldn’t get the clutch hits. We had runners on, but we couldn’t find the ball when we needed to,” said North Surry coach Tony Martin. “We had some momentum going after the home run. I’ll give (Carter) the credit, he got us out.”
A solo home run from Dutton with one out in the fourth was the last run of the contest.
As the game wore on, both teams were increasingly befuddled by inconsistent ball-and-strike calls from behind home plate, and there were only three hits garnered by the two teams after Mikels’ homer. Gwyn had the first of them, a leadoff single in the Hounds’ half of the fourth. He stole second base, but was left stranded there after Carter retired the next three North Surry batters in order.
Watts came on to pitch for the Greyhounds in the fifth inning and was dominant, allowing no hits and striking out seven in three innings of work. The only Saura baserunner came when a batter reached after striking out on a wild pitch.
Tucker earned another walk against Carter in the North Surry fifth and moved to second on a wild pitch, but Watts was unable to help his own cause, striking out.
The Hounds had one last chance in the bottom of the seventh. Chase Goodson reached on a bizarre single where he hit a soft liner behind and to the right of the mound. Carter turned and nearly made a diving catch, but it glanced off his glove toward second base as Goodson raced to first. However, the next three batters all grounded out, leaving Tucker on deck with the potential tying run.
Carter, one of eight seniors on the South Stokes team, went the distance in an outstanding performance, allowing just five hits and striking out six despite umpiring that had both sides up in arms throughout the evening.
“You have to play the game like it is,” said Worth. “(Y)ou got to figure it out and adjust. Both teams did a great job of doing that.”
North Surry’s next game will be against a to-be-determined opponent in the state playoffs. The pairings for the playoffs will be announced on Sunday or Monday.
“The sun will come up in the morning and we got to get ready for next week,” said Martin. “We hope we can keep the No. 2 seed, but if not, we’ll take whatever cards we’re dealt and hopefully be ready.”
Meanwhile, the Sauras will try to knock off Forbush and steal the Hounds’ first-round home date.
“I’m proud of our boys, the way we played, but we still have one more game left to play,” Worth said. “We’re going to keep battling and see what we can do tomorrow.”
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.