Big city heartbreak
As the afternoon sun descended upon Paterson Field in Montgomery on Wednesday, the Pike Liberal Arts Patriots found themselves in a position to make history.
Going into the AISA AAA State Championship game against Glenwood, the Patriots were undefeated, taking out Monroe County and Macon-East in two sweeps.
On top of that, PLAS had not lost a game since mid-March, however, that would all quickly change.
In the biggest series of the season, the Patriots went flat, falling to the defending champion Gators 3-2 in the first game and 6-5 in game two.
“We struggled at the plate in the first game, and errors killed us in the second,” head coach Butch Austin said after the series sweep.
“When you are playing in a big game, all the little things are magnified so much.
“We had the bases loaded twice, with one out and couldn’t score – when you are in a championship game, everything counts,” the coach added.
This was the first time all season PLAS had lost two games in-a-row.
For six innings in game one, the Patriots had a lead and looked as if the team would go up a game in the series.
But thanks to three runs in the top of the seventh, the Gators were able to take PLAS by surprise and steal game one, 3-2.
After giving up two straight singles in the seventh, PLAS starting pitcher Will Starling would walk the bases loaded.
The Gators would take advantage for the opportunity two batters later with a single to right that sent two runs, including the tying run, to the plate.
Glenwood would score the eventual the winning run, a batter later.
Neither teams were able to do much off the game’s starting pitchers as both Starling and Glenwood’s Matthew Kuhlenberg had strong performances.
Starling went six and a third innings, giving up just three runs on three hits, while striking out six.
Two of those hits came in the seventh inning helping the Gators rally to take the lead.
“I was rolling,” Starling said.
“They got a couple of hits together in the sixth and we weren’t able to contain them – it was very disappointing,” the senior added.
Kuhlenberg went five a two third innings, giving up two earned runs off of five hits.
Ross Hixon led the way for PLAS going 3-3 at the plate with an RBI.
Starling added the other RBI on a bases loaded walk in the bottom of the sixth innings.
Logan Stewart and Blake Floyd were the only other PLAS batters to get a hit.
In game two, the Patriots were again able to take a early lead after a sacrifice fly by Justin McLaughlin brought Hixon into score.
However, the Gators would get McLaughlin right back in the bottom of the first.
After a Trey Walters error, Glenwood was able to take advantage, to the tune of three runs in the first.
McLaughlin would not get out of the first, facing only eight batters before being taken out with the bases loaded.
The senior gave up three unearned runs off of three walks and two hits.
Lawson Stewart would come in in relief and get PLAS out of the inning.
The error bug again attacked the Patriots in the second inning, this time with two runs crossing the plate to give the Gators a 5-1 lead.
The PLAS bats would remain silent until the top of the sixth inning, when the team would score four runs to tie the game at five a piece.
Sam Carroll, Logan Stewart and Blake Floyd all drove in runs in the inning with another run coming off an Glenwood error.
Like it did in the first inning however, the Gators would respond in the bottom half of the inning.
An error and a bunt put runners on the corners for Glenwood, and after a sacrifice fly, the Gators would score what would eventually be the game winning run, securing the school’s 18th baseball state championship.
“I don’t know what to think,” Hixon said. “It’s tough – real tough.”
“This was a lot of our last high school baseball game tonight, and that hurts.
“(Glenwood) is a great team and played really well. We just didn’t get going until it was too late,” he added.
Starling and Justin McLaughlin both finished with three hits in the game.
PLAS out hit Glenwood 10 to six, but committed three errors to the Gators’ two.
The losses not only ended the Patriots season, but also the careers of five of its players.
Seniors Walters, Hixon, McLaughlin, Logan Stewart and Starling were each big reasons why PLAS was able to get to this point in the season, and to Austin, they meant so much more.
“You can’t understand what those five meant to me,” he said.
“We lived together, on and off the field for the past couple years. Those five are special, very, very special.
“There will never be another five like them,” Austin added. “This is always the bad part about final games,” he said. “It’s tough on everyone one.”
Despite the final two losses, Austin said this was his favorite season as the PLAS head coach.
“A lot of things made it special for me,” he said.
“The way this team played, the seniors and the young kids all made it special.”