Photo: Hokes Bluff’s Carson Eubanks hustles around the bases during the Eagles’ sweep over Wilson in the Class 4A baseball state quarterfinals on May 4. (Courtesy of Alex Chaney)
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
For the first time since 2008, the Hokes Bluff High School baseball team is advancing to the semifinal round of the state baseball playoffs.
The Class 4A No. 4 Eagles swept No. 2 Wilson 4-2 and 8-2 on Friday, May 4 at Estes/Wright Field. Hokes Bluff hosts No. 8 Oneonta on Thursday, May 10, for a best-of-three series and a chance to play for a state championship next week in Montgomery.
“I thought we had a really good work ethic this week,” said Hokes Bluff head coach Mike Robertson. “We practiced and it was hot and I made them wear long pants. The kids had a good attitude this week.”
During most of the regular season and the postseason, Hokes Bluff relied on pitching and defense. While starting pitchers Dylan Teague and Payton Lemons were excellent during the two wins over Wilson, the Eagles’ bats started peaking at precisely the right time.
Wilson (26-9) jumped on the board first in game one of the series after Tucker Rhodes drove home Tucker Brown in the top of the first, but Hokes Bluff quickly responded in the bottom of the inning.
Carson Eubanks walked to start the inning, and cleanup hitter Houston Edwards launched a two-out two-run home run into right-centerfield to give the Eagles a 2-1 lead.
Hokes Bluff (25-5) tallied two more runs in the bottom of the second thanks to a pair of timely two-out hits. Teague hit a double and Eubanks punched through a base hit with one out in the inning, while Koby Addison hit an RBI single to score pinch runner Jackson Fielding. Edwards recorded his third RBI of the game during the next at-bat when he drove home Eubanks to give the Eagles a 4-1 advantage.
The Warriors added one run in the top of the third when a Hunter Rhodes single scored Brown, but both pitchers then settled in for the remainder of the game. Rhodes, who threw all six innings for Wilson, only allowed one hit and one walk from the third through the sixth inning.
Luckily for the Eagles, Teague was even more impressive throughout the latter stages of the game. He also only allowed one hit through the last four innings and finished the game allowing two runs on four hits, six strikeouts and three walks.
Sophomore pitcher and Auburn commitment Luke Daniel started for Wilson in the nightcap, and Daniel’s fastball was as hard as anything the Eagles had seen all season. As the visiting team on the scoreboard, however, Hokes Bluff jumped on Daniel and the Warriors early in the top of the first inning.
Eubanks led off the game with a single and stole second base to give the Eagles an early runner in scoring position. Weston Ball drove Eubanks home for an early 1-0 lead, and an RBI-single from Edwards plated Ball. Caleb McGinnis poked through a single later in the inning that scored Addison to give Hokes Bluff a 3-0 advantage.
Wilson scored its first run of the game on a sacrifice bunt from Avery Moates, but Lemons worked his way out of the inning with his team still holding a 3-1 lead.
The Eagles provided Lemons with plenty of run support in the top of the fourth. McGinnis led off the inning with a walk, while Teague and Eubanks connected on singles to load the bases with two outs for Koby Addison.
Daniel worked two fastballs by Addison for an 0-2 count, but Addison blasted the third pitch over the leftfield fence for a grand slam and a 7-1 Hokes Bluff lead.
Neither team scored again until the seventh inning when McGinnis brought home Addison, and the Warriors tacked on a run in the bottom of the seventh for the final score of 8-2.
Robertson thought it was very important for his team to get an early lead on the Warriors in the second game.
“I’m really proud,” he said. “[Wilson] has a really good team. I was absolutely scared to death of them. The big inning was getting those three runs early. Payton came back and shut them down, and obviously Koby’s (grand) slam – who would’ve thought it with the way (Daniel) was throwing.”
While Hokes Bluff hit the ball well in the second game, the pitching was once again dominant. The Eagles haven’t allowed more than three runs in a game all postseason, and the combination of Teague, Lemons and McGinnis were too much for the Warriors.
“I’m proud of Payton again and Dylan,” Robertson said. “They pitched good games. We had a lead and brought Caleb in and he did what he does – throw strikes – and that’s what we needed to do.”
Lemons allowed one run, walked two batters and allowed six hits in five and one-third innings on the mound. He struck out two before being relieved in the sixth inning by McGinnis, who allowed one run, one walk and struck out two.
Edwards, Eubanks and Teague all had three hits for the Eagles in the series. McGinnis, Addison, Landon Johnson and Jace Stewart had two hits. Addison had five RBI in the series, followed by Edwards with four, McGinnis with two and Ball with one.
The Oneonta pitching staff has tossed three shutouts this postseason, and Robertson knows his team will have to continue producing at the plate.
“We had some big hits (but) everybody’s got good pitching [at this stage of the postseason]. Oneonta’s got two good arms and shut Cherokee County out twice. We’re going to have to play a little better at the plate. We’re playing pretty good [defense]. We had three or four really good plays (defensively). (Assistant) coaches (Jake) Ball and (Brandon) Bearden have worked so hard at practice trying to get us better with two strikes, cutting our swings down and putting it in play.”
The first game of Thursday’s doubleheader will be at 5 p.m. at Estes/Wright Field, and the second game will begin 30 minutes after the first game ends. If a third game is necessary, it will be on Friday at 5 p.m.