Perched in front of their dugout, members of the Kershaw County American Legion baseball team started leaning as they prepared to rush the field after Bradwin Salmond’s diving grab of Mark Allen Nash’s liner to right field put the locals on the door step of a long-awaited trip to the state American Legion tournament.
Two singles later, those on the bench, went back to sitting. But when Zac Bowers fanned Georgtown’s Seth Wall to close the door on a 6-4 victory, the bench erupted into an on-field celebration which started with a dog pile and ended with head coach Craig Smith getting the ice bucket treatment as he was doused by assistant coach Devin Walker.
Never had an icy bath felt so good for Smith whose team swept Georgetown in three games in their second round playoff series while extending their win streak to eight in the process. And for the first time in recent memory and, according to some, maybe ever, Post 17 punched its ticket into the state tourney which begins Saturday at Riley Park in Sumter.
On Saturday morning, KC officials only knew that the time of their first round game in the eight-team event was 4:30 p.m. The opponent was yet to be determined.
With the way his team is playing, Smith could not care who the 17ers face. For now, he and his team wanted to savor this moment.
“Wow …,” Smith said while trying to put the words together to describe his feelings. “First of all, I’m so proud of our guys. Our 17 kids really deserve this. They worked so hard for us all summer and have done nothing but what we’ve asked of them from day one. I’m so happy for them and, I’m so proud of them.
“Our goal was to make the state tournament and, I heard from a lot of people who told me that I was crazy and that it would never happen. It was ‘Sumter this and Florence that and Greenville this’ … teams around the state what are, traditionally, good.’
“We felt our (pitching) staff was good enough to do it. We got into this thing about two weeks ago and realized that our bats were good enough to do this and we knew our defense was good enough to do this. No team that I’ve ever coached has worked as hard to do something as this team has worked.”
On a long, oftentimes tense night, the person who had the longest day of all the 17ers was Bowers, who woke up at 3:30 a.m. Friday in Key West, Fla., and arrived back at American Legion Park a few innings into the 7 p.m. contest. He would work the final 2.2 innings in a game which saw the hosts’ big three starters of Grayson King, Grey Hoke and Bowers each see mound time with Hoke working 2.2 innings to pick up his seventh win in as many decisions.
Hoke took to the mound in the top of the eighth working with a three-run, 6-3, cushion. After Wall singled to lead the inning off, Hoke recorded a strikeout before walking Jordan Cantley as P-17 pitching coach Will Dorton called for Bowers.
Bowers was greeted by a Kevin Kies RBI single to cut the lead to 6-4. A wild pitch advanced the runners into scoring position before Bowers fanned Daniel Jones for the second out. With Cantley taking a few steps too many from third base, Smith and Dorton decided to take a gamble that paid off in spades.
Using a pickoff move taken from Smith’s playing days at Coastal Carolina, Bowers zipped a throw to third baseman Lawson Stokes, whose sweep tag hit Cantley on the face for the third out while returning the momentum to the hosts’ bench.
“Will (Dorton) was reading my mind,” Smith said of the pickoff play at third to end the top of the eighth. “I looked at Will and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Then, I walked along the fence and said to my wife, ‘We’re rolling the dice. We may win it or, lose it right here.’ That might have been the play of the season for us.”
One night after having left more than a dozen runners in base in a 9-1 win in Georgetown, the 17ers left two runners aboard in the second through fifth innings as well as the seventh and eighth frames. But the hosts gave King five runs in the second through fourth innings to answer a two-run top of the first from Post 114, which left the bags jammed when King set Brandon King down looking to end the first half inning.
KC got to Georgetown starter Cody Thompson for a pair in the second with Salmond getting aboard on a one-out fielders’ choice. Lawson Stokes followed with a single to left before Will Detwiler was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Following a strikeout, the 17ers were in familiar territory for a second straight night. This time, Austin Hayes continued his clutch hitting in the post-season with a two-run single to right to even things at 2-2.
An inning later, with Ethan Wright on the mound for an injured Thompson, the hosts took the lead for keeps by hanging up a two-spot. Tyler Bowers jump-started the frame by lacing a one-out single to right. With two gone, Salmond kept the inning alive with an opposite field single to left which was followed by a Stokes walk which filled the bags again. This time, Detwiler legged out a single to deep shortstop which brought Bowers home with the go-ahead run. When the throw hit the dirt and bounced past first baseman Taylor Bratcher, Salmond scored easily to make it a 4-2 game.
King gave up an unearned run in the fourth which could have been worse had it not been for Russ Radcliff’s strike from centerfield to the plate with catcher Hayes applying the tag on Brandon Britt, who attempted to score from second, for the third out to keep theP-17 lead at 4-3.
The KC offense responded with a solo run in the bottom half of that inning as Blake Serpas was hit by a pitch with one out and later scored on Salmond’s one-out ground out to Bratcher at first for the 5-3 lead.
Smith later said he could not help but wonder if leaving eight men on over the four-inning stretch would come back to haunt his club.
“That’s been our story the past two weeks,” Smith said. “During the season, we were getting those runners in. But these past two weeks, we have left more guys in scoring position … we just couldn’t get the hit or, we would strike out. Early on tonight, it looked like we were going to leave some runs out there that we might need later.”
KC tacked on a sixth run in the sixth as Tyler Bowers reached on an error, was bunted to second by Gunner Smith before moving to third on a balk and then scoring on Salmond’s sacrifice fly to left.
With the way Hoke was going and with the security blanket which is Zac Bowers waiting in the wings, this one looked to be on ice. That all changed with a tense eighth inning and was still a bit nerve-wracking when a pair of two-out singles in the ninth kept Post 114’s hopes afloat.
The pre-game plan was to have P-17’s three main starters try to close the series in three. Hoke came on and picked up the win with King one out away from claiming it for himself. And with Bowers being available after a long trip up I-95, it helped cement the decision for Dorton and Smith, pitching-wise.
“Will and I talked (Thursday) night after the game and Will said that we had Grayson and Grey available and that he had talked to Zac who said he was leaving Key West at 4 a.m.,” Smith said. “He drove up along the east coast to close this ballgame, evidently.
“Bowers took a ball and his glove with him on vacation in Key West and threw while he was down there. When he went out there and threw that first pitch for a strike, we knew that Key West had not affected him that much.”
Offensively, KC out-hit Post 114, 8-7 with Hayes having the lone multi-hit night for the locals with a pair of singles while driving in two runners.
After a post-game meeting with his squad and being congratulated by Post 17 member and athletic director Jeff Davis, Smith said this was a total team effort which included what he called “a family” both on and off the playing field.
“Chad Stokes and Devin Walker have helped us so much to get us to where we are,” he said of two of his assistant coaches. “We don’t give them enough credit for what they do. And Will Dorton? Wow. Will is a driving force on this team. He has absolutely gotten it done with our pitching staff. I loved him to death when he played for me (on the P-17 Junior squad) and I love him even more now.
“And, once again, I’m so thankful for our Legion members; guys like Jeff Davis, Butch Lilly, Clay Carruth, Jimmy Rabon and all those guys who come out here night in and night out. I’m so tickled for them.”
Keeping POSTed: It will take some research this week to find out when the last time --- if there was one --- that a Post 17 squad played in the state tournament … Public address announcer Will Dent strayed from playing the usual recorded version of the National Anthem on Friday night, instead, handing the microphone to Wendy Campbell, mother of P-17 pitcher Elliott Campbell, who gave a stirring live rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner … With the pairings still uncertain as to which teams will be in Post 17’s bracket and what the strengths of those squads are, Dorton and Smith refrained from announcing a starter for Saturday’s state tourney opener. KC is the top seed in the lower half of the bracket after joining Florence as the only two teams to sweep both their playoff series … The state tournament festivities will begin on Friday with all eight teams being guests at a banquet that night … There is still one team to be determined with Georgetown, Hartsville and Manning-Santee being involved in a two-game, three-team play-in event. Manning-Santee will host Georgetown in the first game with the winner traveling to meet Hartsville in the finale.