May 15, 2014
In the bottom of the seventh inning of Wednesday night's first-round playoff baseball game between Sanderson and Middle Creek, Spartan batter Ryan Jeffers faced one of the most stressful scenarios in sports.
Trailing 2-1 and facing a full count with two runners on and two outs, Jeffers stepped up and delivered a walk-off shot to right field, scoring Cory Wood and Danny Liebman, giving the Spartans a 3-2 win and sending the team to the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association state playoffs.
"I was shaking up there," Jeffers said. "I was a little nervous, but I knew I wasn't going to go down. I saw the fastball and popped it out there over first base and it felt great."
The Middle Creek Mustangs (13-13, 6-9) appeared well on their way to a big first-round upset in the game's final moments. After Bailey Rice retired Sanderson's first two batters of the inning, he walked two in a row with two outs. With two Sanderson runners on, Middle Creek elected to replace Rice with Langdon Wilson for the last out.
The result was a long showdown between Wilson's fresh arm and Jeffers' poise. The Mustangs came just a strike away before Jeffers became the hero of the game and sent a packed home stadium to a state of pandemonium.
"He’s been one of our leading hitters all year," said Sanderson head coach Todd Laughlin. "It was good to see him take a deep breath, slow the game down a little bit and stay focused on what he needed to do rather than the excitement of the crowd and the energy.
"In that play, it’s 3-2 with two outs, so both teams are excited and fired up because something’s going to happen. It’s one of those situations where the moment can become too big, but he didn't let that happen."
The deep Mustang pitching staff kept the red-hot Spartan offense at bay throughout the game, frequently substituting pitchers to give Sanderson batters different looks. Tyler Sholar started on the mound for Middle Creek and struck out three in the first two innings. Jordan Towler, Rice and Wilson all saw action as well.
Sanderson (17-6, 11-3) battled back with ace pitcher and UNC-Greensboro commit Daniel Dulaney, who struck out eight in the game.
Sanderson managed six hits in the game but left seven runners on base. Middle Creek scored its two runs on just four hits with three runners stranded in scoring position.
"It’s a tough pill to swallow," said Middle Creek head coach Wesley King. "The kids played their hearts out and I’m extremely proud of my guys and the way they battled. They gave us a chance to win and that’s all we can ask for at this time."
In his last game for the Mustangs, Sholar was 2-3 at the plate with a double and an RBI-triple in the first inning to score the game's first run.
King said Sholar has been an integral part of Middle Creek's baseball program and will be missed next season.
"I've coached some really good players in the years I've coached, but I don’t think I've ever coached any kid who has the heart he does," King said. "His heart beats out of his chest. I’m fortunate to be able to coach the kid."
Sanderson tied the game in the bottom of the fourth when Vance Lassiter doubled and Dulaney immediately singled to right to bring him home.
The Mustangs took a pivotal late-game lead in the sixth when Diego Guerrero walked to begin the inning, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt from Zeke Barefoot and advanced to third on Nathan Farakash's grounder. During Sholar's ensuing at-bat, a wild pitch got away from the catcher and Guerrero barely beat the tag to score.
While runs were hard to come by, Sanderson managed to find a few to win the game at the last possible moment.
"Coming into the game, we knew it would be tough," Laughlin said. "It’s playoff baseball and you expect every game to be hard fought and come down to the little things, and that’s what it came down to. We were just fortunate to get a big hit when we needed it. As far as stress goes, that’s about as stressful as it gets on a baseball field."
Advancing to the next round, the Spartans will host the Panther Creek Catamounts on Friday at 7 p.m.
Follow Zach Mayo on Twitter at @ZachMayoHSOT
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