The Watauga High baseball team won the Northwestern 3A-4A Conference Tournament championship Friday night by knocking off South Caldwell 6-3 at MS Deal Stadium in Granite Falls, N.C.
The Pioneers (13-13) won their fourth conference title in school history, and their second championship in four years. And the Pioneers pulled off their dramatic run against one of their biggest rivals. Stedman Sauls, who was 3-4 with a double and an RBI, was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
"It's a special feeling to be named MVP," Sauls said. "But it belongs to everybody on the team. It's a wonderful thing. Everybody has started hitting. You can't win if you can't hit. Everybody on the team has picked themselves up. Our pitching has been phenomenal in this tournament. Those guys (Hunter Isaacs, Jeffrey Gainey and Utah Jones) hit their spots, and they threw strikes."
"Stedman has been solid behind the plate all year," WHS coach Pete Hardee said. "And he calls the pitches. You need a smart guy back there to do that. Stedman is sharp and he's not afraid to shake a pitcher off. And I have a lot of confidence in him back there, and so does our pitching staff."
Jones came on in relief of Matt Lambert, who got knocked out of the game in the second inning, when the Spartans (21-5) sent nine men to the plate and grabbed a 3-0 lead. But Jones, like Isaacs and Gainey and before him, settled things down and kept WHS in contention.
The right hander, who struggled in the tournament opener at Patton Tuesday night, tossed 5.1 scoreless innings. He scattered six hits, and he snapped a personal five-game losing streak.
"We're on a roll right now," Jones said. "We're making plays, we're throwing strikes and we're hitting the ball. We're a much better team than we showed during the regular year. It's the right time to get hot. We're playing with a lot of confidence right now."
The Pioneers, a No.6 seed, are the lowest seed to win the conference championship since Alexander Central pulled it off as a No.5 seed back in 2002. Ironically, the Cougars beat WHS, a No.7 seed that season, 7-5 in the finals at A.C. Reynolds.
The Pioneers grabbed the lead for good with a four-run rally in the fourth. WHS sent ten men to the plate and scored four times on five hits against losing pitcher Taylor Purus, who handcuffed them in a 3-1 loss last Friday night in Boone. Sauls, Colby Illich, Jesse Illich and Jones had run-scoring singles in the frame. A couple South Caldwell errors aided WHS' comeback.
"Things had to fall in place for us to win this tournament," Hardee said. "We got Fred T. Foard in the second round, and Gainey matched up real well against them. And tonight, our guys just got after it. I'm so proud of these guys. They played like a team this week. They played hard. I was hoping we'd get South in the finals. I thought if we got Hickory, we'd have a letdown.
"Our guys were ready tonight. Like I told our guys earlier today, 'to be the man, you've got to beat the man.' And the championship in this conference goes through South Caldwell. They've got a great team, and Jeff Parham is a great coach."
The Pioneers picked up an insurance run in the sixth. Sauls led off with a double, and Gainey, who was running for Sauls, moved to third on a wild pitch. He scored on Jesse Illich's scratch hit. Illich beat Purus' throw with a head-first slide into first base.
Adam Greene put it out of reach with a lead-off home run---his team leading third of the year---in the seventh. That blow knocked Purus out of the game.
"I didn't believe it until we got the last out," Hardee said. "We've only have two (Class) 4A teams in our league, so we automatically make the state playoffs. We talked about it today. Earning our way in. It didn't matter what the situation was tonight. The main thing is we won, and in my eyes, we earned our way into the state playoffs. We've got a little momentum going, and hopefully, we can keep it going in the state playoffs."
WHS will open the state playoffs, most likely against McDowell, the No.2 seed from the Mountain Athletic 3A-4A Conference next Tuesday or Wednesday.
"We fed off all that energy in our first game (a 4-3 win in nine innings against Patton Tuesday night)," Jones said. "We fell behind, but we didn't give up on ourselves. We kept chipping away and found a way to win that game. We're the kind of team that comes out fighting, if our backs are against the wall. We've been working hard in practice, we're scraping right now. We earned our way here, and we wanted it tonight."
NOTES: The Pioneers have won the tournament championship in 1999, 2000, 2011 and 2014....The Pioneers (thanks for the heads-up Marty Lambert) pulled off the daily double this season---winning the easter tournament and the tournament championship---in the same season.....WHS is 4-6 in the NW3A-4A Tournament championship game....Every year the Pioneers have won the tournament championship, they've made a strong run in the state playoffs. They reached the western regionals in 1999, and they made it to the sectional finals in 2000 and 2011....Since 1996, WHS, South Caldwell and Alexander Central (now a member of the Northern Piedmont 3A-4A Conference) have practically owned the NW3A-4A tournament. The Pioneers have won four titles, the Cougars won five (1997-98; 2002-04), and the Spartans have won eight of the last ten championships (2005-10; 2012-13). Crest (1996) and McDowell (2001) are the only other schools to win the conference championship during that stretch....Pete Hardee is currently 270-193-1 during his stay with the Pioneers (1996-Present). He's won seven regular-season titles, four conference championships, a sectional title, and he's made the state playoffs 12 times....Friday's starting pitcher, Matt Lambert, left the game in the second inning and did not return.