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If the sixth annual Golden Leaf Invitational is serving as a tune-up for teams headed to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association baseball playoffs, the Fike Golden Demons have to feel pretty good about where they stand after pulling out a scintillating 3-2 win in 10 innings Saturday against Cardinal Gibbons.
The Demons, who have been foiled by the Crusaders each of the last two years in the Golden Leaf, prevailed despite getting just two hits and none after the third inning at Gilbert Ferrell Field.
“It’s a playoff atmosphere,” said Buck Edmundson, head coach of the 3-A Big East Conference-champion Demons, who improved to 17-1. “It’s the type of game we’re going to have to win later on. I wanted that for this team. I wanted us to get tested and obviously we did — 10-inning ball game.”
Junior Hunter Stokely scored all three Fike runs, the last coming on a one-out, bases-loaded chopper off the bat of Myles Cyrus, who had struck out his three previous at-bats, to Crusaders third baseman Richie VanTassel in the bottom of the 10th. Cardinal Gibbons catcher Chase Smith took the throw from VanTassel but didn’t have his foot on the plate. Before Smith had a chance to find the dish and get the forceout, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Stokely swept across the plate, spilling Smith and scoring the winning run.
“I just tried to get in front of the throw,” Stokely said. “He was probably a foot off the plate and just the way I was sliding happened to take him out.”
Cyrus was more relieved than anything else. In addition to his three strikeouts, the senior right fielder was unable to gun down Gibbons base runner Adam Bloebaum on a play at the plate in the sixth that allowed the tying run to score.
“Just trying to get something through the infield, trying to battle back with two strikes,” Cyrus said. “Not the best day on my part so I was just trying to come through for my teammates and do whatever I can to help the team out and it worked out in the end.”
The 4-A Cap 7 Conference Crusaders (9-7) battled throughout the game against Fike starting pitcher Chad Bean and then Stokely, who came on with one out in the seventh.
“Chad competed,” Edmundson said. “He’s gutsy and gritty. He stayed in it. They hit a couple of balls hard on him and it was always next pitch. Obviously, Hunter coming in and being able to do what he did. That’s pretty special and having him healthy.”
Stokely, who missed a few games in March with a sore back, looked every bit of 100% when he took the mound after Bean had exhausted his pitch count, giving up a one-out single to Gibbons No. 9 hitter Nick Tubolino. Stokely, whose fastball is close to 90 miles per hour, was greeted by Drew Sotell with a shot past Fike third baseman Noah Joyner, who had scooped up everything near him to that point. Tubolino didn’t stop going around second and easily reached third and Sotell made it to second when Bean, who had moved to left field, slipped after picking up the ball. After a popup for the second out, Stokely intentionally walked Bloebaum, who had lined a double to the center-field fence in his previous at-bat. With nowhere to put Crusaders cleanup hitter Carter Holjes, Stokely got the first of his five strikeouts.
In the ninth, Smith ripped a lead-off double down the left-field line and, after his courtesy runner was bunted to third by Tubolino, Stokely got a strikeout and groundout to end the threat.
“I was just trying hit the strike zone for my team, that’s all I was trying to do,” said the North Carolina commit. “Throw strikes! It’s part of the game.”
Edmundson said that Stokely wasn’t trying to finesse the Cardinal Gibbons batters.
“He throws it harder than the average pitcher and he relied on his fastball,” Edmundson said. “He mixed in a few breaking balls but he was pretty much throwing it by them.”
Bean, on the other hand, lived on his changeup as he, as usual, worked in and out of trouble. The lanky right-hander gave up a two-out RBI single to Smith in the second and, after Bloebaum’s leadoff double in the sixth, was on the verge of escaping until VanTassel bounced a single between Fike first baseman Tanner Sullivan and second baseman Colton Moats to score Bloebaum’s courtesy runner Jackson West.
“They swung at strikes,” Bean said of the Crusaders, who had eight hits. “They didn’t come out of the zone very much. Just made me throw strikes, which gave them a chance to get base hits.”
Bloebaum started on the mound for Gibbons and Fike scratched an unearned run off him in the bottom of the first. Stokely rapped a one-out single, took second when Zach Pittman was hit by a pitch and came around on a pair of passed balls.
After the Crusaders tied the score in the second, Fike reclaimed the lead in the third when Stokely drew a one-out walk, stole second and hustled home on Sullivan’s single up the middle.
From there, Bloebaum, who was also throwing heat, retired the next 10 batters he faced until exiting after the sixth. His replacement, Holjes, allowed no hits and worked out of trouble in the seventh and eighth, the latter ending on a diving catch of a Bean liner by Tubolino in left. The third Gibbons pitcher, senior left-hander Garrett Abdalla, got into trouble in the 10th when he walked Stokely with one out before a wild pitch sent him to second. An intentional pass to Pittman and non intentional walk to Sullivan gave Cyrus his chance at redemption.
“Hats off to our guys,” Edmundson said. “We just scratched, clawed, stayed in it, stayed in it and we won.”
• This was the second decision for Stokely, who got the win in Fike’s 5-4 win at home against Northern Nash on Tuesday that clinched the second straight Big East title for the Demons.
• Fike is currently ranked No. 5 among 3-A teams by Maxpreps.com, but the Demons are behind fellow East Region teams No. 1 New Hanover (16-0) and No. 2 D.H. Conley (16-2). Bean feels Saturday’s win may be enough to boost Fike past Conley for seeding in the state 3-A playoffs.
“It helps playoff seeding big time because Conley is 16-2 and we’re 17-1, so we should get the 2 seed,” he said. “We knew going into this game that if we did what we were supposed to do that we’d be probably the 2 seed in the East.”
• Gibbons defeated Fike 7-5 in what proved to be the championship game of the 2017 Golden Leaf and then last year, the Crusaders handed the Demons a 9-4 loss on the final day in a game that would have given Fike the Golden Leaf title had it won. Edmundson pointed to Fike’s upset of Gibbons in the third round of the 2015 3-A playoffs as the beginning of what has been a great rivalry. Edmundson said that he and Crusaders coach Jim Liebler have sought to play one another in the Golden Leaf since 2017.
“It’s great competition,” Edmundson said. “You know what you’re going to get when you play them. They’re going to be a good ball team and they obviously were today. They outhit us and their pitching was really good.”
• The game was originally scheduled for 1 p.m. but heavy rains Friday forced a 2:30 p.m. start — after some meticulous groundskeeping by Edmundson, his staff and players. The Fike coach, who said work began at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, credited assistant coaches Charlie Vaughan and Robert Stokely.
“This place was a lake this morning and we worked and worked and worked to get ready,” Edmundson said. “For all the work we put in to getting this place ready to play today and for our guys to stay scrappy and tough and get this win, that makes it — today, before Easter — that much more special.”
Score by innings
Cardinal Gibbons 010 001 000 0 — 2
Fike 101 000 000 1 — 3
One out when winning run scored.
WP-Hunter Stokely (2-0) 3 2/3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 5 SO. LP-Garrett Abdalla (0-1) 1/3 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 1 SO.
LEADING HITTERS — Cardinal Gibbons: Chase Smith 2-4, 2B, RBI; Adam Bloebaum 1-4, R, 2B; Richie VanTassel 1-4, R, RBI. Fike: Hunter Stokely 1-3, 3 R; Tanner Sullivan 1-3, RBI.