CHARLOTTE — Victory and a chance at the NCISAA 3A baseball championship slipped through High Point Christian Academy’s hands Saturday.
Hickory Grove took advantage of HPCA errors to go ahead in the sixth, and the host Lions held on for a 4-2 victory and a sweep of the first two games in the best-of-three championship series. Hickory Grove won the opener, 5-1, on Friday night.
“Our guys played their hearts out and gave it everything they had to the last pitch.,” HPCA coach Corey Gesell said. “They battled. (Starting pitcher) Eli Crump pitched incredible, gave up two hits, a bunt and a bloop. I couldn’t ask anymore from them. Some guys stepped up with some clutch hits. It was just an unfortunate play there.”
The unfortunate play came after Hickory Grove, down 2-1, loaded bases on an error, a walk and a hit batter. Crump, who went the distance, then forced the Lions’ Lazaro Santos to sky a popup that came down not far behind first base. The ball first appeared to be caught for the third out of the inning but it popped out and fell to the ground, allowing two runs to score. Jordan Rowell then stroked an RBI single into right, putting the Lions ahead 4-2.
“That’s a tough play,” Gessell said. “Nobody wants to drop that ball. It’s just one of those things that happens in baseball sometimes. You just throw your hands up because you don’t know why. I’m just proud of my guys in how far they’ve come this year, and the effort and attitude they’ve had.”
Hickory Grove jumped in front 1-0 in the first when leadoff hitter Trey Hager scored on a groundout, after walking, going to second on a fielder’s choice and stealing third.
HPCA had little success against Hickory Grove starter Drew Lanzo over the first three innings.
In the fourth, the Cougars broke through.
Sam Sapp reached on an infield hit, went to second on a sacrifice bunt, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on Cole Philbin’s single to center. After another single, Luke Homol hit a grounder and collided with the Hickory Grove first baseman as the throw arrived. The ball flew into foul territory in left field, allowing another run to score, putting HPCA ahead 2-1.
“We had some guys get some good hits, played some clutch baseball,” Gesell said. “Our guys put their hearts into it, so I’m proud of each and every one of them.”
The Cougars put runners on third and first with two outs in the sixth against winning pitcher Lanzo and against reliever Jordan Santos in the seventh. A strikeout ended the threat in the sixth and a fly to right ended the series in the seventh.
Lanzo gave up seven hits, struck out seven and walked two. Santos allowed a hit and a walk in getting the save.
“(Lanzo) is a Division I pitcher, he’s committed to UNC Wilmington,” Gessell said. “We faced him earlier this year so we knew what we were going to see. It took a little while to catch up with him. He was throwing fastballs past us. We eventually started hitting him a little bit. We couldn’t put those three or four hits together in a row, and against tough pitching that’s hard to do.”
Crump, who took the loss, struck out six and walked five. Noah Hill, Philbin and Jake Dunlap each stroked two hits for the Cougars while Sapp and Mitch Adams had one.
HPCA finishes 20-6 while Hickory Grove winds up 28-2.
“The guys put in a lot of work,” Gesell said. “They work in the weight room, put in offseason work. So, it means a lot to them and they want to make it this far. They put the work in. I tip my hat to them because they don’t sit around. They worked hard to get here. Everybody wants to win the state championship, and in this game, someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. It doesn’t mean the effort, the attitude, the work ethic wasn’t there.”
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