CHAPEL HILL — The lights were bright, rally caps were on and tensions were high. With two outs down and a runner on second base in the bottom of the seventh of a tied up district …
CHAPEL HILL — The lights were bright, rally caps were on and tensions were high.
With two outs down and a runner on second base in the bottom of the seventh of a tied up district championship game, the moment couldn’t have been bigger when Noah McGeary stepped to the plate for the Cascade Champions.
McGeary took the first pitch for ball one.
The next pitch floated his way and he sent a hard line drive to the left-center gap to bring Chance Brown home to beat the Forrest Rockets (19-10) 8-7, and secure the District 7-AA title for the Champions’ (13-15) first district championship since 2012.
“Noah got in the box and looked at me, and I just pointed at him and said ‘be that dude,’” Cascade head coach Travis Sheffield said.
“You look at him and don’t expect him to be one of our better players, but he has so much heart and passion. To see him get that game-winning hit was awesome. He tried to run from me, but I made sure I could catch him for the dogpile. I’m so proud of him and this whole team.”
Entering the bottom of the seventh, the Champions were trailing the Rockets 7-6 with the bottom of their lineup coming to the plate.
After two quick outs, it was up to the nine-hole hitter – Logan Green – to keep their hopes alive, and on the third pitch of the at-bat, he took one for the team by taking a pitch off his back for a free base.
Brown stepped to the plate next and ripped a line drive to right field to score Green all the way from first base and tie the game at 7-7 before McGeary’s walk-off single.
“Logan Green probably had the biggest at-bat of that inning. Up there with two outs, and he’s the nine-hole hitter. I’m sure the whole ballpark was deflated thinking it was over,” Sheffield said. “He’s not the type of guy to wear a pitch, but he took one for the team in that moment. That gave Chance the opportunity to be the senior and dog that we needed with that double down the line.”
Cascade was in control for most of the game with a 6-2 lead in hand heading to the top of the sixth inning, but Forrest came through in a big way with five runs on four hits to take a 7-6 lead – their first of the game.
Kason Fuller and Carter Walk started off the half inning with back-to-back singles, and a walk immediately after loaded the bases for the Rockets.
Champion starter Walker Craig struck out the ensuing batter for the first out of the inning, but a walk on the following batter plated a Rockets’ run for a 6-3 game.
With the bases still full, Branham Haynes stepped to the plate, and launched a fly ball deep into center field for a bases-clearing triple to tie the game at 6-6.
Two at-bats later, Conner Melson replaced Craig on the mound with runners on the corners and one out.
Melson forced the first batter he faced into a fielder’s choice to third basemen, Sawyer Lovvorn, who made the throw to home to get the lead runner out, but the Rockets pushed one more across in the next at-bat as Preston Gentry knocked an RBI-single to center field to take a 7-6 lead heading to the bottom of the sixth.
“We’re never out of any ballgame, and that’s a testament to our guys,” Forrest head coach Andy Burkett said. “ If you go back to last week when we were losing 5-1 to the defending single A state champion in Eagleville, and we came back to win that game 9-5. Our guys never give up, and they have a lot of heart.”
Entering the championship game, the Rockets were slim on arms in the bullpen having played three games since Thursday night, and one earlier in the day on Saturday where they beat Grundy County to advance to the final against Cascade.
Burkett and the Rockets knew it would be a hard-fought game against a streaking Champions squad.
“We knew coming into today that it was an uphill battle with our pitching staff being depleted. So we knew we were going to have to ride Carter Walk, Ryan Meglis, and Tyler Tackett today. They did exactly what they were supposed to do,” Burkett said. “Hats off to Cascade. They’ve been a completely different ball club since the district tournament started, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence. Our district being well represented in the region tournament is something I’m really happy with.”
Walk tossed the majority of the game for the Rockets, going five innings with five strikeouts while allowing three runs on seven hits.
Cascade came out of the gates hot to take an early 3-0 lead after Jaxon Sheffield launched a ball to the right-field fence for a two-RBI triple, and Lovvorn singled immediately after to score him.
Craig followed it up in a big way by striking out the side in the top of the second to keep their momentum rolling.
He tossed 5 and 1/3 innings on the night with four walks, six strikeouts, and eight hits while allowing seven runs.
“I knew stamina would be a big thing for him tonight having been sick this week, but he gave us what we needed and then some. I told him to get us five good innings, but I left him out there for the sixth. And that’s when Forrest had their big inning,” Sheffield said. “Then Conner came in in a tough spot. I think we gave up one run in that spot, but then Conner put up a zero for us. He gave us a big opportunity to win the game, and he only started pitching for us late in the season. I kind of decided he was gonna be a guy for us after a few strong outings, and he’s been throwing it over the plate.”
Forrest found its rhythm in the top of the third inning to put up two runs for a 3-2 game after Gentry doubled to score Haynes and Tyler Baxter who both singled to start the inning.
The Champions answered with a run in the bottom half on a Zach Crosslin double that scored Lovvorn and they manufactured two more in the bottom of the fifth to take a 6-2 lead.
In the inning, Crosslin knocked a leadoff double, and Melson followed it up with a single to give Cascade runners on the corners.
Before the first pitch to Logan Pulley, Sheffield signaled for a delayed double steal between Crosslin and Melson, and they executed it to perfection by forcing the Rockets to throw to second which allowed Crosslin to score, and Melson to slide safely into second.
On the ensuing pitch to Pulley, he placed a bunt down the first baseline, and after a collision at first base, Melson slid into home to score and Pulley was called safe at first.
“I knew we didn’t have a big enough lead. A two or three run lead against those guys isn’t safe. They can swing it well, one through nine, and even some off the bench,” Sheffield said. “I wanted to make sure that anyone that got on base, we made sure to get that run across. That’s a tough team over there, so we needed as much as we could get.”
The 7-AA title came in Sheffield’s first season in charge of the Cascade baseball program, but it was a long and bumpy road to get to the championship game.
“At the start of the season, we were trying to get a feel for each other with me being a brand new coach and some new players coming in. We wanted to establish who we were, and some lumps came along the way,” Sheffield said. “When I saw who we had as a staff, some former Champions, I knew those guys were going to bring some passion to the program. It’s been great having those guys together this season. To see where we’ve come from and see these guys believe in themselves has been a joy.”
With the win, the Champions will host the first round of the region tournament against the 8-AA runner-up while the Rockets will travel to the 8-AA champion with both games being on Friday at 6 p.m.
And Burkett and the Rockets are hoping for another shot with the Champions down the road.
“We feel confident going into it with the experience we have. Our bullpen will be reset and the lineup will be rested, so we’ll be ready to go make some noise,” Burkett said. “If we get the chance to see Cascade again, that would be awesome. We would love to have another crack at them, especially in postseason play.”
Cascade 301 0 202 — 8 12 3
Forrest 002 0 050 — 7 10 1
Cascade: Sawyer Lovvorn 3-for-4, Zach Crosslin 2-for-4, Chance Brown 2-for-4, Conner Melson 1-for-2, Logan Pulley 1-for-3, Jaxon Sheffield 1-for-3, Walker Craig 1-for-4, Noah McGeary 1-for-5.
Forrest: Tyler Baxter 2-for-3, Preston Gentry 2-for-4, Branham Haynes 2-for-4, Kason Fuller 1-for-3, Carter Walk 1-for-3, Luke Allen 1-for-3.