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While it isn’t the mindset espoused by every baseball coach in the fourth round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association baseball playoffs, Friday’s reward for the winner of the 3-A East Regional semifinal between Fike and D.H. Conley will essentially be a mulligan.
Or, for those with an eye towards financial board games, a get out of jail free card. There’s precedent for such a card being immensely valuable. In Charles B. Aycock’s 2012 run to the 3-A championship series, the Golden Falcons were 10-7 at one point and commenced a run to the finals. Able to afford a loss in the regional final, CBA was no-hit by Eastern Alamance in the opening game before winning the final two contests.
Indeed, Friday represents the last round of single-elimination play before the three-game series format kicks in for the regional final and state championship series. For someone, the end of a dominant season could come to a sudden and shocking end in just seven more innings.
The winner will take on the survivor of No. 1 Wilmington New Hanover and No. 4 Fayetteville Terry Sanford in next week’s regional round in what will be a best-of-three series.
Fike, the No. 3 seed and the Big East Conference champion, carries a 22-1 record into its first road game of the playoffs. After a head-scratching 6-5 loss to Southern Nash in conference play, the Golden Demons have won 15 in a row and have only given up five or more runs in four games.
Conley, regular-season champions of the split 3-A/4-A Eastern Carolina Conference, are 24-3 and fell in the ECC tournament championship game to New Bern. However, the Vikings haven’t lost to a 3-A program all season.
Of Conley’s three losses, two were to 4-A New Bern and another was at the hands of 4-A Apex Friendship, which finished 11-13.
The final MaxPreps Adjusted Ranking submitted to the NCHSAA for playoff seeding purposes smiled favorably upon Conley, assigning it the No. 3 finish in 3-A, compared to Fike’s No. 4 showing. The proprietary formula, which is not released to the public, takes into account strength of schedule and margin of victory, but the margin of victory component is removed for the NCHSAA’s use at seeding time.
Similar to a majority of teams still playing baseball at this time of year, Fike has leaned on its pitching to reach the fourth round for the first time since 2015. Sixth-year head coach Buck Edmundson has shown a proclivity to trust his bullpen when needed, and it has resulted in Fike’s entire staff being available for Friday’s contest.
In the fourth inning of Tuesday’s third-round game against Southern Lee, Edmundson pulled starting pitcher Chad Bean, a junior, after 56 pitches despite the contest being scoreless and his ace only yielding two hits. He turned to junior Hunter Stokely, who threw 60 pitches before departing with one out in the top of the seventh.
In the interim, Fike’s offense took advantage of two Southern Lee miscues and produced a pair of earned runs in the sixth against Southern Lee’s Luke Craig, a UNC Wilmington commit, to get the final 4-1 margin.
The gamble paid off handsomely for Fike, which will have both arms available following the mandatory two-day rest for hurlers that throw anywhere from 46-60 pitches in a contest. Defensively, the Demons are coming off a showing where they didn’t commit an error.
Fike’s top of the lineup has been steady all season, with senior catch Garrett Browder, Stokely at third base, senior shortstop Zach Pittman and senior first baseman Tanner Sullivan. Both Pittman and Sullivan can be called on to pitch, with Pittman getting the save in the final two-thirds of an inning Tuesday night. Senior Myles Cyrus had two hits against the Cavaliers and doubled home a run in Fike’s two-run sixth. Edmundson has moved Browder, a Davidson College signee, to the top of his batting order in recent contests.
Conley, which has won 20 or more games in four of the last five seasons, hits .317 as a team and owns a staff earned run average of 1.97. Pitchers have a strikeout-to-walk ratio well over a 2-to-1 margin, with 281 punchouts and 104 walks.
Senior Robbie O’Neal, freshman Matthew Matthijs and junior Eason Warren have drawn the most starts, while senior Mitchell Hofler has five saves out of the bullpen and could be summoned to preserve a lead as the team’s innings leader.
Senior Cam Jackson leads Conley’s everyday players at the plate with a .536 average that includes 10 doubles and nine home runs.
“When they banged (canceled) the conference tournament, I rode down to watch D.H. Conley play New Bern,” Edmundson said after Fike advanced into the fourth round. “Look, Conley’s a good ball club. Their record speaks for that, but so are we. I think it will be a good game. I’ll have our boys ready.”