Watauga's baseball team captures NWC tournament title
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
Going into the Northwestern Conference Baseball Tournament at the start of this week, Watauga was 0-6 against the Top three seeded teams during the 2014 season.
After Friday night, the Pioneers are now 3-6 against those teams.
Watauga completed its revenge tour on the NWC's Top three seeded teams in the tournament with a 6-3 victory over rival South Caldwell in the finals at M.S. Deal Stadium. Watauga not only beat the Spartans on the field, but also beat a rainstorm that started to fall as the bottom of the seventh inning started by finishing the game before the storm got worse.
The Pioneers (11-12) were able to close out the game when South Caldwell's Taylor Puris lined out to Watauga third baseman Adam Greene. Moments later, during the award ceremony, rain fell on the remaining members of the M.S. Deal crowd, which by then was made up mostly of Watauga backers along the first base line.
"I'm proud of these guys," said a hoarse Pete Hardee. "We fell behind again and we just battled back. We swung the bat extremely well in the tournament and this is how I expected us to hit all year. We've worked hard on it and finally it's starting to pay off for us."
Watauga's win over South Caldwell (19-5) was the first in three tries against the Spartans, who are the regular season champions. South Caldwell won the first matchup 6-0 in Sawmills and 6-2 in Boone in the last game of the regular season.
Watauga, which won its first NWC tournament championship since 2011, and its fourth overall, was seeded sixth for the tournament. The Pioneers beat Patton 4-3 in nine innings after falling behind 3-0 on Tuesday, and beat Fred T. Foard 7-0 Thursday.
Both Patton and Foard swept Watauga during the regular season.
"They played like a team this week and we played hard this week," Hardee said. "That's what I'm most proud of."
Watauga was able to reverse the trend by getting standout pitching performances in each game, and cut down on a disturbing trend of playing poor defense. The Pioneers also helped themselves by being able to string hits together in an inning instead of stranding so many base runners.
It didn't hurt to hit with some power. Greene belted a solo home run to lead off the seventh inning that gave the Pioneers a 6-3 lead and put an exclamation point on Watauga's rally.
Greene, who had worked the count to 2-0, was waiting for a fastball, which he got. He also said he never saw the ball clear the left-field fence because he was too busy running the bases.
"He got down 2-0 and I knew he was going to throw me something hard and in the (strike) zone," Greene said. "He left it up a little bit and I said, 'Well, I might as well hit it.' I hit it as hard as I could and I kept running. I heard everybody cheer and I knew it had to be gone."
South Caldwell took a 3-0 lead in the second inning, but Watauga rallied for four runs in the fourth inning to take a 4-3 lead. Watauga loaded the bases and whittled away at South's lead with BRI singles by Stedman Sauls, Colby Illich, Jessie Illich and Utah Jones.
Sauls was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player after banging out three hits, including a double in the fifth inning. He scored on a Jesse Illich infield single after reaching third base on a wild pitch.
"We've got the whole team hitting now," Sauls said. "It's a wonderful thing because you can't win without hitting the ball and we've been doing that well lately."
Sauls was equally important catching. After Matt Lambert struggled in his start, Jones came on in the second inning, got the Pioneers out of the inning, and then pitched scoreless baseball the rest of the game.
Jones, as Hunter Isaacs did when pitching against Patton and Jeffrey Gainey did when pitching against Foard, got some help from his defense. Sauls threw out Hunter Church trying to steal third base in the fourth inning, and Watauga shortstop Carson Isaacs ran a long way to catch a foul ball in the seventh inning, while fighting the rain and a tricky wind.
Jones eventually struck out three and walked two batters. He scattered three hits.
"I think when our backs are against the wall, we come out and fighting," Jones said. "We know we've got to win, so we do whatever it takes. We fight and we scrap and we score runs any way we can. We're knocking (ground) balls down and we've been working harder in practice."
Watauga's offense finished with 11 hits. Jesse Illich and Jones each had two hits for the Pioneers.
South Caldwell made a key defensive play in the first inning when Carson Isaacs was thrown out at home by left fielder Chase Whisnant on a Lambert single.
The Spartans' offense came to life in the second inning on RBI singles from Trent Wakefield and Jacob Raby. Tanner Parham also executed a safety-squeeze bunt that drove in Whisnant from third base.
Both teams find out when and whom they will play in the first round of the state 4-A playoffs this weekend when the brackets are released.
Watauga 6, South Caldwell 3
Watauga 000 401 1 -- 6 11 1
South Caldwell 3 5 2
Lambert, Jones (2) and Sauls. Puris, Teague (7) and Macchia. W--Jones, L--Puris. LOB--Watauga 6, South Caldwell 5. 2B--Watauga, Sauls; South Caldwell, Macchia. HR--Watauga, Greene. SH--South Caldwell, Page, Parham, Herman. SB--Watauga, C. Isaacs; South Caldwell, Raby, Whisnant, Herman.