LOCUST GROVE — The Locust Grove pitching staff combined to hold second-ranked Loganville to just eight runs in two games during Wednesday’s Class AAAAA state playoff series.
Loganville’s hurlers were just a tad better, limiting the Wildcats to only two runs on six hits in the two-game sweep. The Red Devils advanced to the Final Four with wins of 4-1 in each game.
Locust Grove led 1-0 early in both games, only for Loganville to come back in the latter innings. In the decisive Game 2, the Red Devils broke open a 1-all tie in the sixth inning with two runs before adding another in the seventh for insurance.
Loganville needed just two pitchers to get through both games. In Game 1, Joseph Brandon picked up the complete-game victory, allowing two hits while striking out four. Bay Witcher followed suit in Game 2, allowing four hits while striking out five in seven innings of work.
“I do think we left some runs out there, but you have to tip your hat to those guys,” Locust Grove head coach Stephen Phillips said. “When you work out of situations, you know, it was a 1-1 ballgame in the sixth, you know, they just did a great job. They’re the defending state champions for a reason. They got a lot of those guys who came back off last year’s team. When we put pressure on them they responded and got out of those situations, so you have to tip your cap to them.”
The Wildcats remained in each game due to strong pitching performances of their own. In Game 1, Nolan Crisp struck out nine while allowing two earned runs and five hits in six innings. Joe Roden got the start in Game 2 and struck out seven while allowing one earned run in 3 2/3 innings. Cole English, Steven Brown and Connor Presnell also recorded vital outs in the late innings.
“I’m proud of a lot of the guys. The pitchers came in and kept us in the ballgame the whole time,” Phillips said.
With Crisp and Brandon matching up in Game 1, runs were always going to be at a premium. The Wildcats scratched one out in the second inning after Crisp reached on an error. Courtesy runner Tanner Epperson stole second and later scored on an RBI single by Luke Welborn to give Locust Grove a 1-0 lead.
The advantage was short-lived, as Loganville answered with a run in the bottom of the frame. Daniel Braswell tied the game with a two-out RBI double after Crisp walked Blaine Marchman to start the inning.
From there, Brandon cruised, not throwing more than 14 pitches in any of the next five innings while also using double plays in the fifth and seventh innings to erase leadoff baserunners. Loganville added a run in the fourth on a Braswell RBI single and two more in the fifth when a slow roller off the bat of Tanner Green was thrown away by Locust Grove third baseman Dalton Laney.
The Wildcats also lost leadoff hitter and first baseman Josh Newton on the play, as he left the game with a wrist injury after it made contact with Green running down the baseline.
Locust Grove gave the ball to Roden in Game 2 and he held the Red Devils scoreless over the first three innings. The Wildcats took a 1-0 lead in the third when Kyle Elston, who replaced Newton in the second game, came through with a RBI single to score Kole Vickers.
“Kyle Elston came in when Josh went down — we had to get another leadoff guy — he came in, hit the ball hard and got the single to score the run,” Phillips said.
Roden gave up a solo homer to Green in the top of the fourth, which tied the game at 1-all, and he made way for English with two outs in the frame. English stranded a runner on third to end the inning.
After leaving two on in the bottom of the fifth, Locust Grove gave up the lead in the top of the sixth. Marchman was hit by a pitch and later advanced to second on a single by Witcher. English got a grounder off the bat of Braswell, but Vickers’ throw on the 4-6-3 double play attempt scooted past Laney at first, allowing pinch runner Joshua Haynes and Witcher to score on the play.
The Wildcats threatened in the bottom of the inning. Gavin Lee nearly drove in Owen Marchant with a home run, but his blast was caught at the warning track in left field. Loganville added an insurance run in the seventh, and Witcher retired the side in order in the bottom of the frame to lock up the sweep.
It was another successful season for Locust Grove (23-12), who won their fifth straight region title. It is also the third straight year that the Wildcats have played in the Elite Eight.
“You know, these seniors, what can you say, we lost a group last year and really nobody thought we would even be hanging around,” Phillips said. “These seniors came in and they set an example of what we do around here and the younger guys followed suit and it paid off for us.
“We’ve just been really blessed with just great kids who buy into what we do,” he continued. “We’ve been fortunate over the last five or six years, I think this is the first road game other than the state championship (in 2016) that we’ve had in those years. You know, the younger guys see how it hurts for the seniors and hopefully in the offseason they’ll get in the weight room and start looking forward to next season.”