The Watauga High baseball team kept its hopes alive for a share of the Northwestern 3A/4A Conference championship Friday night by blasting its biggest rival, South Caldwell, 11-3 at Watauga-High Field. And the Pioneers got help from an unknown source. Jacob Gainey, who got the start because Max Linnville was hobbled with a hamstring injury,
backboned the Pioneers (12-7 overall; 8-2 NW3A/4A) with a three-run homer, a double and an infield hit. He drove in three runs and scored three times as the Pioneers avenged a 9-8 loss against the Spartans in Sawmills back on March 20.
"This is an intense rivarly," Gainey said. "We have a lot of respect for each other, but we also take a lot of pride in beating each other. We really felt we should have beaten them the last time we played them. It was a big game, especially for us. This keeps our chances alive to win (a share) of the conference championship."
Gainey's three-run blast highlighted a four-run rally in the second inning that put WHS on top to stay. Trailing 2-1, Gainey sent a Thomas Redding (4-1) offering sailing over the left-field wall for a 4-2 lead.
"I got a little nervous with a 2-2 count," Gainey said. "But I got the pitch in my zone and I hit it. I knew I hit it good, and when I looked up, I knew it was gone. I got an opportunity to play, and I'm glad I could contribute."
And it was also Gainey's first hit of the year. He was 0-3 with an RBI coming in. But getting contributions from the bench is nothing new for the Pioneers this season. Brian Miller, Brian Bolster, Gainey, Chance Richards, and Taylor Shuford, among others have delivered in a big way when called upon by coach Pete Hardee.
"I took a lot of flack early in the year for keeping 19 guys," he said. "But they all knew each one of them had a role on this year's team. And those guys, when we've called on them, have come through. Look at Gainey. Man, what a game for "Gigs" (Gainey's nickname), he did a great job. I told our guys before the game, it was going to take a great effort from everyone to pull this one out. And our guys got the job done."
And the Pioneers, who have four in a row and six straight in league play, finally broke the game open, thanks to a controversial call in the fifth inning. Leading 6-3 and with Spencer Greer at the plate with a runner at third, Greer supposedly grounded out to end the inning. The Pioneers left the field, but after South Caldwell (15-2; 10-1) coach Jeff Parham argued Greer fouled the ball off his foot, the umpires reversed the call and Greer was given new life. But Ethan Greene, who came on in relief of Matt Proffitt to earn his second save, struck out Greer on very the next pitch to end the inning.
"It was a mistake," Hardee said. "But we all make mistakes, and it was a tough call. It really jacked our team up. They really meant business when they went back out on the field. And as a coach, it really makes you feel good when you go out there, and fight for your team, and they've got your back."
And the Pioneers didn't disappoint their coach. They erupted for five runs in the bottom of the fifth that gave WHS a commanding 10-3 lead. And the Pioneers scored all of their runs with two outs. A bases-loaded walk to Ryan Turner, an infield RBI single by David Martin and a two-run single by Proffitt fueled the attack. Ethan Critcher added the final touch with a towering, solo home run in the sixth.
The win was also WHS's first regular-season win against the Spartans since 2010, and the loss also snapped South Caldwell' six-game winning streak. The Spartans swept WHS in the regular season last year before the Pioneers beat South Caldwell in the championship game of the NW3A/4A Tournament.
"No question about it, South is our biggest rival," Hardee said. "This is a huge win for us tonight. It keeps our chances for a share of the conference championship alive. This is a tough team to beat. They're well coacheddf. Jeff Parham is one of the best coaches in the state, and when you beat them, it feels good because it feels like you've accomplished something. These games are fun to coach in. I told their third baseman Gage Parham, 'I wish we could play you guys every night.' The intensity in these games in tremendous."
"Watauga played real well," Parham said. "We made some mistakes, but they took advantage of it. (Gainey) did a great job for them. It's our first conference loss, but we still have a game left, and we have to do what we have to do."
The Pioneers, with the win, still trail South Caldwell by one game for first place. The Spartans wrap up the conference season Tuesday night against Alexander Central; the Pioneers still have two league games remaining---Tuesday at Hibriten and back home next Friday against St. Stephens.
"Those two games coming up are just as critical as this one," Hardee said. "It's probably not possible for us to win the conference, but we just have to go out and win these next two games, maybe get some help from Alexander, and who knows. The bottom line is that we can't let up next week."
Martin was 2-3 with a double, a sacrifice fly and two RBI; Proffitt had a two-run single; Critcher had two hits, including a home run. The Pioneers made 12 hits. Bryson Bowman had a two-run homer in the first inning to pace the Spartans. Proffitt (4-1) went four innings and picked up his fourth win of the year. He gave up three earned runs on five hits with six strike outs, three walks and he hit a batter. Greene gave up a scratch hit in his three innings of work with four strike outs.
"Matt did a good job getting us into the fifth inning," Hardee said. "The great thing about Greenie is that he can throw seven innings, and he's right back throwing bullpens the next two days. He's just amazing. His arm bounces back good. And when he's on a roll, and he's confident, you want him on that hill as much as possible."
The Pioneers travel to Hibriten Tuesday night. Greene is scheduled to get the starting nod. Our coverage begins at 6 p.m. on Oldies 100.7 FM.
NOTES: Greene had a 11.48 earned-run-average against the Spartans in four previous appearances.....The Pioneers and the spartans have been the top two teams in the league standings since 2008. The Spartans won the title in 2008, WHS finished second. The Pioneers captured the league title in 2009 and 2010 before the Spartans won it last year. South earned a share of the title this season by beating Hickory Tuesday night. The Spartans also won the NW4A title in 2007. The last team to win a conference championship other than WHS and south was A.C. Reynolds in 2006.
INDIANS SNAP FIVE-GAME SLIDE
The St. Stephens baseball team scored six runs in the second inning and blasted Fred T. Foard 15-5 in five innings. The win also snapped Saint's five-game losing streak, and the win also gives the Indians (9-7 overall; 5-4 Northwestern 3A/4A Conference) sole possession of third place in the NW3A/4A.
The Indians broke the game open with eight more runs in the fourth. Colton Allison picked up the win going four innings while allowing three hits and four runs (only one earned). He struck out four and walked four. The Indians pounded out 12 hits and were paced at the plate by Phillip Carroll (2-2, double, triple, 2 runs, 5 RBI), Kyrawn Whitfield (3-3, Triple, 3 runs, 2 RBI) and Zach Bumgarner (2-4, double, 2 RBI).
Justin Wike was 2-3 for the Tigers as was Mitchell Mathis who also added 2 RBI. Losing pitcher Brandon Owensby struggled with control walking six men and allowing six runs in just 1 2/3 innings.
NORTHWESTERN 3A/4A CONFERENCE
FRIDAY NIGHT'S GAMES
WATAUGA 11, SOUTH CALDWELL 3
HICKORY 12, HIBRITEN 2 (5 INNINGS)
ST. STEPHENS 15, FRED T. FOARD 5 (5 INNINGS)
WEST WILKES @ ALEXANDER CENTRAL (LATE)
MOUNT TABOR @ WATAUGA (POSTPONED)
SOUTH CALDWELL @ WEST CALDWELL
FRED T. FOARD @ DRAUGHN
HIBRITEN @ ST. STEPHENS
NORTHWESTERN 3A-4A STANDINGS
x-SOUTH CALDWELL 10-1; 15-2 L1
WATAUGA 8-2; 12-7 W4
ST. STEPHENS 5-4; 9-7 W1
HICKORY 5-5; 14-6 W2
HIBRITEN 4-5; 7-10 L1
ALEXANDER CENTRAL 2-8; 7-13 L2
FRED T. FOARD 1-10; 4-16 L8
x - REGULAR-SEASON CHAMPIONS