Photo: Southside High’s Jacob Little (far right) slides safely into third base as Hokes Bluff’s Hunter Burke retrieves the ball during the Panthers’ 3-2 victory in the Etowah County Schools Baseball Tournament championship game last Saturday (Mar. 6) in Walnut Grove. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Southside captured the 2021 Etowah County Schools baseball tournament championship in dramatic fashion last Saturday (Mar. 6) in Walnut Grove.
With the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the seventh inning, leadoff batter Michael Rich was hit by a pitch, stole second base and reached third on a fielder’s choice.
That set the stage for junior Tucker Pearce, who lifted a one-out single just over the reach of Eagle first baseman Glavine Lamberth.
Rich scored easily on the play, sending the Panthers back to Southside and Rainbow City with and 3-2 victory and their first county title since 2017. Hokes Bluff won the tournament in 2018 and 2019. The 2020 tournament was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
“Even though I got hit, it was a lot of fun to be able to scratch out a run that way,” said Rich. “It was an awesome way to win the game.”
Pierce had just entered the game in the No. 9 batting slot.
“I told Tucker before putting him in that I trusted him,” said Southside head coach Shane Chappell. “It wasn’t the prettiest thing, but he found a way. Michael getting on the base the way he did and being aggressive on the basepaths ended up being the difference in the ball game.”
Rich limited Hokes Bluff to three hits and one walk in six innings with nine strikeouts as the Panthers’ starting pitcher.
“I was able to get good and loose before the game and I thought that I pitched pretty well,” said Rich, who was named the tournament MVP after the game. “I thought that it could be a long night after [Hunter Burke] got that hit (in the first at-bat of the game), but I was able to settle down and go after it and throw strikes.”
Although pleased with the win, Chappell saw room for improvement in regard to the Panthers’ five fielding errors.
“I thought that both [Rich and Drake Rainey] threw very well but I don’t think we played very well behind [Rich]. That’s not the standard that we’re trying to play at. But good teams find a way to win when they’re not playing well, and that’s what we did tonight. Michael pitched great and we made some plays when we needed to.”
Rainey went the distance on the mound for the Eagles, scattering five hits and two earned runs. He struck out five and did not allow a walk.
“I thought Drake pitched a great game, especially in this [cold] weather,” said Hokes Bluff head coach Mile Robertson. “He doesn’t get to pitch a whole since he’s our catcher, but he did a good job tonight in throwing strikes and staying ahead in the [pitch] count.”
Rainey was perfect through three innings, retiring the first nine Southside batters. Rich was not far behind, however. After allowing a leadoff single to Burke in the top of first, Rich retired seven of the next 11 batters. None of the four Eagle batters who got on base in the first three innings reached second.
Lamberth drew a walk in the top of the fourth and eventually reach third but the Eagles could not get him home.
Southside took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the inning when Jacob Little stroked a leadoff single and scored on Aulden Battles’ one-out double.
Hokes Bluff went ahead 2-1 in the top of the fifth. Burke was hit by a pitch and Rainey singled, followed by a two-out RBI base hit by Lamberth. Rainey later scored when Brayson Hayes reached base on an error. That turned out to be the extent of the Eagle offense, however, as Rich sent Hokes Bluff down in order in the sixth and Landon Brasher did likewise in the seventh.
Meanwhile, the Panthers tied the game in the bottom of the sixth when Little reached base on an error and scored on Toren Snow’s RBI groundout.
All that was left was Rich’s solid work on the basepaths and Pearce’s walkoff single to close out the game.
“I thought we played a good tight game, but [Southside] made some plays and we didn’t there at the end,” said Hokes Bluff head coach Mike Robertson. “We had some chances early on when [Southside] made a couple of mistakes but we just didn’t execute. I think we’ll have a chance to get better if we continue to work hard.”
Battles went 2-for-3 for Southside, while Little finished with a hit, an RBI and two runs scored. Burke and Rainey each had a hot and a run scored.
Joining Rich on the all-tournament team were Little, Battles and Drew McBurnett from Southside; Burke, Rainey and Payton Lemons from Hokes Bluff; Brody Samples, Sean Wright and Landon Carroll from Sardis; Kade Crowder, Nolan Fairley and Grayson Kellett from Glencoe; Eli Pearce and Tyler Jones from West End; and Josh Campbell and Tanner Humphrey from Gaston.
“Obviously winning the county tournament is important to the fans and the community, but for us, we’re just looking to win the next game,” said Chappell. “Today happened to be for the county championship, but for us it was the next one on the list. We just want to continue to learn and play well.”