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From mired in a 2-8 start to winning the North Carolina Christian School Association 2-A baseball championship.
Wilson Christian Academy completed the improbable turnaround on a summertime Saturday afternoon on the Turnage Athletic Complex diamond with a 7-6 drama-laced conquest of Alamance Christian.
The Chargers of head coach Ty Bissett, designated as the visiting team on their diamond, snapped a 6-6 tie with an unearned run in the top of the seventh inning to seize their third state title in the last five years and first since 2015. WCA advanced into its fourth state final since 2013.
With victories in 10 of their last 11 games, the Chargers, the No. 2 East Region seed, posted a 13-10 record. Alamance, exposed to the wrath of the WCA “dream-killers,” was denied its first state title and wound up with a 10-4 record.
“The first one is always the favorite,” Bissett expressed of his three state titles at the Chargers’ helm. “The second one is twice as nice. But this is my favorite way to do it. We got challenged throughout the whole year; we got challenged in the playoffs. I love all the teams I’ve had, but this is one of my favorites.”
WCA’s signature was shrugging off adversity. Doing so was an absolute must in finally subduing a Warriors team that started six seniors.
The Chargers won the state championship without the services of their all-state junior pitcher-shortstop Brice Murray (broken hand) throughout the playoffs. Preston Skinner, who is joined by Carlos Molina as the only seniors, was suspended for the playoff opener.
In Saturday’s final, WCA withstood five errors, a balk and 11 stranded base runners.
Molina, the starting pitcher who worked 2 1/3 innings, is eager to wear his first championship ring.
“I really can’t describe it,” he said of his emotion. “Every year, we’ve gotten close. This year was something different. We may not have had the most talent ever, but we definitely had chemistry. We worked hard to get here and, with that chemistry, we did it. It was amazing!”
Added winning pitcher Zack Denmark: “We fought through a lot and finally finished the job. It shows we’ve been through adversity, but the team persevered and got the job done.”
The Chargers prevailed with the help of three effective innings on the mound from seventh-grade left-hander Hunter Lewis. Huge was a fourth-inning development. Three Warriors batters after dropping a routine fly ball, WCA junior center fielder Adrian Dehart, battling cramps, responded with a sensational catch that saved two runs and ended inning.
Working the last 1 2/3 innings was Denmark, who pitched in and got credit for the win in all four playoff games. He finished with a 7-5 record. The Chargers also worked their two-out magic well enough to plate three runs.
“I’ve felt better,” Denmark admitted, “but I could take care of business.”
The championship game, marked by mistakes from both teams, was decided after two lead changes and three ties.
With the score knotted 6-6 and two outs in the top of the seventh, sophomore WCA second baseman Max Holland singled. Pinch runner Seth Quinn stole second base and continued to third when the catcher’s throw sailed into center field. The center fielder’s throw to third was mishandled and Quinn was awarded home plate or an extra base when the baseball wound up in an area designated as out of play.
“I felt like we had it then,” Denmark clamored. “Momentum was on our side.”
Denmark responded by striking out the side. He wasn’t fazed when, with two outs, Alamance senior second baseman Caleb LaTour legged out an infield hit.
“It was a new time,” Denmark reasoned, “but it was back to the same approach — I was going to strike him out.”
He did and WCA players were poised for the on-field celebration.
Starting Warriors pitcher Eric Orlaski, a senior right-hander, singled in a first-inning run.
The Chargers answered with three in the top of the second on singles by Denmark, the designated hitter, and freshman third baseman Will Shearin, a misplayed fielder’s-choice, an error and eighth-grade shortstop Dylan Farmer’s two-run double. Junior left fielder Bryce Hughes connected for a sacrifice fly in the third.
Alamance plated a run in the second and two in the third, when the Chargers committed three errors and sophomore first baseman Lee Stutts collected the only hit against Molina and Lewis. Lewis was especially victimized by his defense’s inability to make plays.
“We had to keep our heads up,” Lewis said with a shrug. “I was a little bit nervous at first. I don’t even know how to describe it, but I felt really good. I just tried to throw strikes with my fastball and curveball.”
Of being relived by Denmark with one out in the sixth, Lewis responded: “I knew (Denmark) would throw strikes. He’s been clutch and that really pumped me up.”
Lewis described being a seventh-grader on a high school state-championship team as “amazing” and of playing a huge role in that accomplishment, smiled and replied: “ I have no words for that.”
Wilson Christian seized a 6-4 margin in the fourth when Shearin burned the Alamance outfield with a two-run double to deep center field.
But senior center fielder Andy Varga and senior catcher Spenser Ellington each singled when the Warriors got a run back in their half of the fourth. Varga and Orlaski each singled when Alamance knotted the score at 6-6 in the bottom of the sixth.
But two errors on the same play an inning later crowned the state champion..
“Tough game,” lamented Alamance head coach Josh Howard. “We just made mental mistakes — some were errors and some were base-running. It was a good game and evenly matched. Guys on both sides were showing grit.”
Howard admitted the Warriors were optimistic 2018 would be the season when they won their first baseball championship.
“I was hoping it would be, but that’s OK,” he said.
Varga, who batted 3 for 3 and scored three runs, added: “We had a great year; we have nothing to hang our heads about. We just made two or three errors. We have a bunch of seniors and this was supposed to be our year.”
The bottom of the seventh inning especially disappointed Varga.
“I was on deck,” he explained.
Instead, WCA’s Skinner played in his fourth state final and celebrated a third championship.
Of his role as a spectator during the playoffs, Murray remarked: “It sucked. But I had faith in them the whole time.”
Bissett summarized: “It felt like we were destined. The team hung in there and the guys stayed focused.
“Hunter pitched a great three innings and Denmark came in and got the job done. All I wanted from Carlos was two innings _ it worked out great. (Sophomore catcher) Gabe (Barnes) was true grit. Handling adversity is not about what you do when you make an error but what you do after you make the error. I am proud that we could hang tough through the adversity. It’s the little things ...”
... That win state championships.
Score by innings:
WP-Zack Denamrk (7-5) 1 2/3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 SO. LP-Lee Stutts 3 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 2 SO.
LEADING HITTERS — Wilson Christian: Zack Denmark 2-2, Will Shearin 2-4, 2B, RBI, Dylan Farmer 1-4, 2B, 2 RBI, Bryce Hughes 1-3, RBI; Alamance Christian: Andy Varga 3-3, Eric Orlaski 2-4.