Crisp County’s Chris McGinnis steals home in Game 1 of the Cougars’ best-of-three Class AAAA state championship series Saturday at Carrollton. (Staff Photo: Tim Morse)
CARROLLTON — After four months, 37 games and four playoff rounds, it has come down to this for the Crisp County High School baseball team.
Win, and the team gets a state championship trophy, rings, a championship banner that will hang in the school’s gymnasium and the opportunity to proclaim themselves as state champions.
Or, they can lose, say they played in the state finals, take home a runner-up trophy and hoist a runner-up banner in the gym.
The Cougars split their doubleheader with Carrollton Saturday in the GHSA Class AAAA state finals, winning the first game 12-0 in a five-run mercy rule contest. But Carrollton rallied to win Game 2, 9-6, avoiding a sweep and forcing Game 3.
The split sets up a winner-take-all championship game Monday at 3 p.m. in Carrollton.
“This is it,” outfielder Devin Taylor said. “For the seniors on this team, this is the last game. On Monday, we are going to leave everything out here on this field. Hopefully, and leave as state champions.”
If the Cougars want to win their first state championship since 1961, they will need a similar performance like they had in Game 1. Pitcher Taylor Walls mowed down a potent Carrollton lineup, allowing just two hits.
And the Trojans committed an uncharacteristic eight errors, helping to aid Crisp County’s victory. However, it wouldn’t have mattered the way Walls was in control.
The senior Florida State signee won his second postseason game this week behind a gritty performance. After the Cougars went ahead 3-0 to open the first game, Walls stroked a three-run homer in the second inning over the right field fence to put the Cougars firmly in command.
Taylor then helped pad the Cougars’ lead and turn the game into a rout in the fourth inning when his RBI single plated two runs and helped Crisp to a 9-0 advantage.
“That’s the way baseball is sometimes,” Crisp County coach Bill Pate said of Carrollton’s eight errors in Game 1. “You just have to capitalize on it.”
But they couldn’t duplicate the same kind of magic in Game 2. Carrollton jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second inning on starter Stewart Tyler, and the Cougars found themselves trying to dig out of the deficit.
With Carrollton in control, Crisp sent nine batters to the plate in the fourth inning to grab a 5-3 advantage. Carter’s 1-3 sacrifice bunt scored Witt Campbell, who had singled earlier in the inning.
Then the Cougars loaded the bases with an intentional walk to Walls and another walk to Chris McGinnis. That brought up Bradley Hough, who promptly sent a double that seemed to jump over third base and down the left-field line, clearing the bases for a 4-0 advantage.
“I was just doing what I needed to do to help us get the momentum back on our side,” said Hough, who finished the second game 2-for-2 with a double and three RBIs.
One batter later, Taylor added to the lead with another RBI single.
But Carrollton took the lead for good in the fifth. With two outs and runners on first and third, Pate lifted Tyler for Logan Carter, and Carrollton’s Will Hesterlee greeted him with an RBI double that scored two runs to tie the game at 5. Then following a walk, Wil Garrett gave the Trojans the lead for good when his single pushed home two more runs.
Carrollton added two more in the sixth to take a four-run lead before Crisp tried to mount a rally.
Taylor’s RBI single made it 9-6. Then C.J. White singled and Tyler walked to load the bases with an out. But Carrollton relief pitcher Max Driver induced a ground ball that the team turned into a 4-6-3 double play to cut down the Cougars’ momentum.
“Everything went right in Game 1,” said Pate, who won his 300th game as a coach with the Game 1 victory. “In Game 2, we still did a lot of good things. The ball just didn’t bounce our way. But give them credit. They made a lot of good plays.”
Game 3 could be interesting since both teams used a wealth of pitchers on Saturday. But the good news for Crisp County fans is that Walls, Tyler, Carter and Landon Whitman, who made his first appearance in Game 2 after not pitching in at least two months after injuring his hand, will all be eligible to pitch in Game 3.
“I still feel very comfortable with our pitching staff,” Pate said. “But Carrollton threw a bunch of guys, too. That’s high school baseball.”
If Game 3 on Monday is like the first game, Taylor will be happy.
“We enjoyed that first game … we played like a bunch of little kids out there enjoying the game,” Taylor said. “But it was like in Game 2, since we had beaten them 12-0 earlier, we didn’t have fun. We got baserunners on at times, and then there were times where we didn’t. We couldn’t come up with that clutch hit.”