By Matthew Martin/Sports Correspondent
The Etowah and Southside high school baseball teams squared off last Saturday (Apr. 27) in a winner-take-all game with a spot in the Class 5A state quarterfinals on the line.
The Blue Devils and Panthers tied at one game apiece after two hard-fought games on Friday (Apr. 26), so Saturday’s rubber game had the makings of a dramatic contest.
Unfortunately for those wanting said drama, Southside took the third game, 6-1, to advance to the third round of the postseason.
Southside faces a familiar opponent in the 5A quarterfinals. The Panthers travel to Pinson Valley (31-10) for today’s (May 3) doubleheader, with an if-necessary Game 3 scheduled for Saturday (May 3).
Still, the two schools, separated by just a few miles, electrified fans with a thrilling series between two Etowah County and Area 13 rivals.
No. 7 Etowah opened the series Friday evening with a 4-3 win, followed by a 7-1 victory by No. 5 Southside in a contest that featured gut-wrenching tension and flaring tempers.
“(The games) were very intense,” Southside coach Blake Bone said. “You don’t expect anything else with clubs that know each so well. We knew it was going to be hard-fought. That’s what we expected coming into it and that’s what it was. Those are the types of games that take it out of you.”
In Saturday’s winner-take-all game, the Panthers jumped out to an early 2-0 lead after two innings. With the way starting pitcher Patrick Lister was throwing, that is all Southside would need.
The senior threw five innings, allowing no runs while surrendering two hits and one walk. Lister also struck out five.
Andrew Fuhrman relieved Lister in the top of the sixth inning. He allowed two hits, which included Blaine Payne’s RBI single, for the Blue Devils’ only run. Fuhrman struck out the side in the seventh inning, setting off a Panther celebration around the infield.
Southside built its early lead when Blake Devine delivered a run with his RBI single in the first inning.
Drew Mullinax plated the Panthers’ second run with a squeeze bunt in the second inning.
Cody Pylant added to the lead with his bases-loaded single in the inning, making the score 4-0.
Southside later added a run on a fielder’s choice and Fuhrman concluded the scoring with his RBI single for a 6-0 lead.
“I’ve give all the credit to those guys,” Bone said. “Etowah had a great plan and they came in and played a heck of a series.
“I’m also proud of my guys, the way they came back and battled after losing Game 1. Sometimes you can lay down, but our guys bounced back and were able to take the series.”
In Game 1, neither team was able to get anything going in the first three innings.
In the fourth inning, however, Etowah broke through for three runs.
Colby Dunn led off the inning with a walk and later scored after Josh Bobo singled, Payne doubled and Austin Keener singled. Bobo and Payne also scored, but it could have been an even bigger inning.
Paul Ruiz reached on a drag bunt, putting two Blue Devils on base with no outs. But the bottom of the Etowah batting order left the pair stranded with the score 3-0.
Ruiz later reached on an error in the top of the sixth inning and later scored on a Tanner Putman single to increase the Blue Devil advantage to 4-0.
Southside then scored two runs in the bottom half of the inning to cut the Etowah lead in half.
Connor Paulson and Drew Mullinax both reached base to lead off the inning, and the pair later scored on Hunter Clough’s two-run single.
After Etowah went down in order in the top of the seventh, the Panthers went back to work.
Brandon Light led off the inning with a single, followed by Kyle Steward being hit by a pitch. After Paulson sacrificed the base runners over to second and third base, Mullinax delivered with a big single to plate Light.
Southside held Steward at third, preventing the tying run from scoring. Anticipating a throw to the plate, Mullinax rounded first. But the throw from the outfield was cut off, catching Mullinax off base. He was thrown out at second base for the inning’s second out, with Steward – the tying run – at third.
Fuhrman then popped out to second base to end the game.
“My thought process was, he was a few steps off the bag with the ball in the infield and it would have been one out with our No. 2 guy coming up,” Bone said. “It should have been first and third if we don’t make a baserunning mistake, then you have a lot of options. You can do whatever you need to do to get the run across. I don’t second-guess myself on that one, we just made a bad decision running the bases.”
Dunn earned the win for Etowah, throwing a complete game. He allowed five hits, three runs and four walks while striking out four.
“We got a good game out of Colby and we scored runs when we needed to,” Etowah coach Larry Foster said. “We know we can win, that’s the bottom line. But against this bunch (Southside) you have got to play good baseball. If you don’t play good baseball, you’ll get beat in a hurry. Those guys are very talented. We can’t afford to make mistakes. If we make mistakes we are going to get beat. That’s just the way it is. If you watch them play, you can see they are good. That’s all there is to it.”
Alex Pondick took the loss for Southside. He also threw all seven innings, allowing four runs and six hits. He walked one and struck out seven.
The second game began much like the opener, with both teams going the first couple of innings without any runs. Etowah had baserunners in the first and second innings, but stellar Southside defense prevented no runs with a double play and a couple of fielder’s choice plays.
Southside was able to scratch out a run with a two-out rally in the top of the third inning.
Mullinax reached base on a walk, followed by a Fuhrman base on balls. Clough got the run home with a single, moving Fuhrman to third base.
But after a few pitches to the next batter – clean-up hitter Devine – Fuhrman was thrown out at the plate after Clough tried to steal second base, drawing a throw from Etowah catcher Brandon Wood. Fuhrman broke for home when the throw went to second base, and shortstop Chris Steele’s throw to the plate was on target, with Wood’s tag getting Fuhrman to end the inning.
Etowah was able to tie the game in the bottom of the fifth inning.
Dustin Robinson led off the inning with a single and later scored on Dunn’s RBI single to tie the game at 1-1.
Southside was able to blow the game open in the top half of the next inning, scoring four runs.
Mullinax led off the inning by reaching first on an error. Fuhrman, Clough and Devine then hit consecutive singles. All four players eventually scored the four runs to make it 5-1.
The Panthers added the game’s final two runs in the top of the seventh. Clough singled and scored on a Devine double. Devine then scored on a Pylant’s sacrifice fly.
Jesse Fry earned the win for Southside. He gave up four hits and one run while striking out three. Fuhrman and Brock Love pitched in relief, retiring the final seven Etowah batters.
Clough was the big star for the Panthers in Game 2, going 3-for-4 with one RBI and two runs scored. Devine and Light each went 2-for-4. Pylant drove in two runs on a sacrifice fly.
Dunn, G.Q. Hardwick, Putman, Ruiz and Steele each had a hit for Etowah.
“I’m proud of our kids for competing,” Foster said. “Southside is a great team. We’re getting better. It’s going to be a good rivalry from here on out.”
Southside also traveled to Pinson Valley in the quarterfinal round last season, defeating the Indians by the scores of 7-6 and 9-4.