Canes' playoff run ends with state runner-up finish
A scrappy Jefferson Dragons baseball team showed why it was dangerous offensively in Game 1 of the Class AAAA State Championship best-of-three series Monday night, but then struggled defensively, committing 11 total errors in the latter innings of that game — a 5-4 win — and in Game 2 that Cartersville won 9-3.
Wednesday night at State Mutual Stadium in Rome, the Dragons again showed their early firepower in a winner-take-all Game 3 to take a 5-0 lead in the top of the first inning. This time, however, Jefferson played spotless defense without committing an error and held off a late threat by Cartersville to win 6-3 and collect the school’s first-ever baseball state championship.
For Cartersville, the result is a third state runner-up finish in the last 18 years to go with the Hurricanes’ six titles.
The Dragons (28-12) posted their five runs in the top of the first inning on four hits, two walks, a hit batsman, and a balk.
Justin Cole singled with one out and Jefferson loaded the bases on walks to Lane Watkins and Ryan Godfrey before Billy Finch was hit by a pitch for the game’s first run. A bases-loaded balk plated the second run and moved runners to second and third in front of a two-RBI double by Clayton Jones. Sammy Elegreet tacked on a fifth run with an RBI line drive single into center field and the Dragons were off to a fast start, 5-0.
Cartersville picked up a run in the bottom of the third without benefit of a hit.
Ian Inaba was hit by a pitch to start the Canes’ third inning. Then Preston Welchel and Josh Davis sandwiched walks around a line out by Anthony Seigler to load the bases. Mason Barnett followed with a sacrifice fly to center field and the Hurricanes had narrowed the gap to 5-1.
The Canes loaded the bases in the bottom of the fourth with one out to force Jefferson head coach Tommy Knight to bring in his ace and Game 1 winner, lefty Patrick Hickox. The Dragons’ previous pitcher, Will Wood yielded singles to Jordan Wilkie and J.P Martin to open the frame and Inaba coaxed a walk to fill the bases.
An RBI groundout by Welchel made the score 5-2, but Hickox got out of the inning with no further Hurricane damage. He intentionally walked Seigler with first base open and then recorded his first strikeout to end the threat.
Gooch and Warner had one-out singles for Cartersville in the fifth and sixth innings respectively, but the Purple Hurricanes failed to cut into the Dragons’ lead.
Meanwhile, Canes’ pitcher Gage Morris — who followed starter Cohen Wilbanks and reliever Levi Ayers — kept Cartersville in the game and allowed only one baserunner on a walk until the top of the seventh.
A Cartersville infield mistake led to a Jefferson insurance run in the top of the seventh. Cole was hit by a pitch. A sacrifice bunt moved him to second base and the Canes set up the infield force play with an intentional walk to Godfrey. Finch hit a grounder that might have been an inning-ending double play, but an errant throw kept the inning going and allowed a run to score.
Cartersville made it interesting in their final offensive frame.
Seigler hammered a solo shot over the left field wall to make the score 6-3 and open the Hurricanes’ threat in the top of the seventh. Davis followed with a double before Gooch singled and moved Davis over to third. Gooch took second base on the throw to bring the potential tying run to the plate with one out and two baserunners in scoring position.
Unfortunately for the Canes, Hickox got Jordan Wilkie to pop up and J.P. Martin to ground out and the Dragons celebrated a 6-3 win and their first-ever baseball state championship.
Hickox (3.2 IP, 1ER, 5H, 1BB, 1K) earned both wins in the series after tossing the final two and two-thirds innings Wednesday night. Vinny Farley (2 IP, 1ER, 0H, 2BB, 1K) was the Game 3 starter for the Dragons and Will Wood (1.1 IP, 1ER, 2H, 2BB, 1K) pitched in middle relief.
Cohen Wilbanks (0.1 IP, 5ER, 2H, 2BB) started for Cartersville and Levi Ayers (1.2 IP, 0ER, 3H, 1K) followed on the mound. Morris (5 IP, 1R, 0ER, 0H, 3BB, 3K) worked the final five innings allowing only one, unearned run.
Gooch had two hits including a double for Cartersville. Seigler homered and was walked twice. Davis contributed a double while Wilkie, Martin, and Devin Warner had the other Hurricanes’ hits. Barnett added a sac fly and Welchel a groundout RBI for the remainder of the Cartersville offense.
Cole was 2-for-3 and scored twice to pace the Jefferson offense. Jones blasted a two-run double. Elegreet contributed an RBI single, while freshman catcher Mason Cooper added the Dragons’ only other hit. Finch had the other Jefferson RBI.
Cartersville’s season comes to a close with a Region 5-AAAA title, the Class 4A state runner-up designation and a 32-10 record in coach Kyle Tucker’s first season at the helm.
The Hurricanes had 2018 playoff series wins over Pickens, Marist, Spalding, and Heritage-Catoosa.
Tucker and the Canes’ have an abundance of talent returning next season but will miss graduating seniors John Reed Evans, Jake Gooch, Levi Ayers, Ladarius Winburn, Anthony Seigler, Curtis Wilkes, Devin Warner, Jake Norris, Josh Mayo and Garrett Shelton.