The Watauga High baseball team slipped, stumbled and fell Friday night in its regular-season finale at Pioneer Field. South Caldwell, which clinched the Northwestern 3A-4A Conference championship Thursday night with a 3-0 win against Fred T. Foard, scored three runs in the first inning and defeated WHS 6-2 on Senior Night.
Losing pitcher Matt Lambert walked the bases loaded to start the game. Brett Maachia's run-scoring single gave the Spartans (12-2 NW3A-4A; 19-4) a 1-0 lead. But Lambert (3-2) regrouped and struck out the next two hitters. But a throwing error by second baseman Justin Greer on Trent Wakefield's ground ball allowed two more runs to cross the plate.
"We just made too many mistakes to count in a seven inning game," said WHS coach Pete Hardee in a frustrated tone. "Tonight, we didn't play very good defense, we didn't run the bases well. This team has potential, but we just aren't playing smart baseball. It's really been the story of our season."
But South Caldwell made a few mistakes of its own in the third inning that got WHS (10-13; 4-10) within a run at 3-2. An infield single by Stedman Sauls, a base hit by Jesse Illich, and a pair of errors gave WHS two unearned runs.
But despite those breakdowns, winning pitcher Taylor Purus went the distance and kept the Pioneers in check. The left hander gave up two unearned runs on three hits with three walks and four strikeouts. The Pioneers never threatened again after that third-inning meltdown by the Spartans.
"No excuse, but we were a little flat tonight after we won the conference championship (Thursday) night," said South Caldwell coach Jeff Parham. "But this group has put together a nice season. I'm proud of what they've accomplished. It means a lot to us to win the conference championship outright."
The Spartans, who have won 13 of their last 15 games, nailed down the No.1 seed and their fourth consecutive regular-season championship (they've also won eight of the last nine conference tournament championships dating back to 2005) in the NW3A-4A. They also snapped a personal two-game losing streak at Pioneer Field (their last win came in 2011).
"South Caldwell has a great tradition," Hardee said. "Jeff Parham does a great job with his players. This is a pretty balanced league. There are no dominant teams. South isn't dominant, but they make the routine plays and they pitch it well. And that's a successful formula."
The Spartans extended their lead with two runs in the fifth. Brock Johnson reached on a lead-off single. A wild pitch moved him to second base, and Maachia brought him home with an RBI double. Jon Almond, running for Maachia, eventually scored on a wild pitch that gave South a 5-2 lead.
The Pioneers unleashed five wild pitches, four walks and they hit a batter in Friday night's loss. And the Spartans took advantage by scoring five runs.
"We're giving up at least three to four runs a game," Hardee said. "That's been our problem all year. We've played a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games. But when you start giving up runs like we are, we just take ourselves right out of the game. It's frustrating. I'm scratching my head wondering what the heck is going on. I've seen things this year I've never seen before."
The Pioneers are a No.6 seed and will open the NW3A-4A Conference Tournament at Morganton-Patton Tuesday night. It's the first time since 2002 that WHS has played on the road in the first-round of the conference tournament. And the Pioneers are coming off their worst conference season in 12 years.
"But Patton is a game we can win," Hardee said. "We made eight errors down there and lost, 9-7; they beat us up here and held us to one run. We don't know who will pitch for us in that game. But the bright side to all of this, we can still play some games, we have the conference tournament to turn ourselves around, and we have an automatic berth in the state playoffs."
But WHS' offense, which tore the cover off the ball last week at the Tarboro Easter Classic (they raised their team average by 23 points), has hit a snag offensively. The Pioneers have made all of seven hits in their last two games.
"And we've seen our share of left handers (Coan McAlpine and Kaidyn Hamilton of Hickory Thursday night, and Purus on Friday) the last two days," Hardee said. "And those guys have been nasty. We're just not hitting, and we're not scoring runs. We're also making mistakes running the bases. We have hard practices. The guys are working at it. But things just aren't going our way right now. We're not playing with a lot of confidence."
Sauls was WHS' best hitter Friday night going 2-3; Maachia paced the Spartans going 2-3 with a double, a walk and two RBI. A starting hasn't been released for Tuesday night's game at Morganton-Patton. Coverage will be on AM 1450, WATA and GoBlueridge.net.
NORTHWESTERN 3A-4A CONFERENCE
Fred T. Foard 5, St. Stephens 2
Hibriten 8, Hickory 1
Patton 5, Freedom 1
South Caldwell 6, Watauga 2