ASHEBORO — Entering the championship day of the 2023 Southeast Regional Tournament Sunday, there had been more than 140 games played at McCrary Park in that tournament over the years with an impressive number of nail-biting games.
None, some would say, could match what occurred Saturday night as Randolph County Post 45 attempted to stay alive in the double-elimination format against undefeated South Carolina.
In a game that featured as many twists and turns one would find in a mystery novel as well as enough defensive highlights that would fill a week of ESPN’s Top 10 plays, South Carolina broke a tie with a run in the 11th inning and held on for an edge-of-your-seat 5-4 victory.
The loss ended Randolph County’s run for a regional championship as the local team ended its season with a record of 25-8.
“We had a 1-0 game with them several years ago (2017) in one of the best games I have ever been involved in here,” Post 45 coach Ronnie Pugh said. “There have been a lot of them, but this one was a classic.”
Post 45 fell behind early, rallied to take the lead and was one out away from moving into the final day of the regional when an error and wild pitch allowed South Carolina to tie the game at 4-4 in the seventh inning.
From there, both teams turned back numerous challenges until a leadoff triple in the top of the 11th inning and a sacrifice fly plated what proved to be the winning run.
“I would much rather leave here tonight after that, as hard as it is to take, than leave like Kentucky did or Virginia,” Pugh said of Kentucky being eliminated by Post 45 17-1 in five innings the night before and Virginia falling 14-2 to Fuquay-Varina in the game prior to Post 45’s epic battle. “We played baseball here. Everybody was into it. There were some really good moves that were made that worked for both of us and some that didn’t.”
South Carolina scored once in the second and twice in the third for a 3-0 lead before a bases-loaded walk to Caleb Dunn put Post 45 on the board in the fourth. Post 45 had some chances as it stranded six runners in the first four innings.
Walks to Tanner Marsh, who pitched five innings for Post 45, and Hunter Atjkins, who threw 87 pitches in six innings of relief, in the bottom of the fifth preceded a three-run homer from Tyler Parks to give Post 45 a 4-3 lead.
Randolph County held on to that lead until a leadoff double in the seventh, a one-out error on a pickoff attempt, and a two-out wild pitch sent the game into extra innings.
“Tanner and Hunter, they just battled,” Pugh said of his two hurlers, who combined to throw 168 pitches. “That’s what makes it fun out here, when you have grinders.”
Both teams sparkled defensively, making game-changing plays, including:
— An incredible catch by Parks in foul territory.
— A nifty stop by Parks on a line drive grounder that started a twin-killing in the 10th.
— An earlier play from Josh Meadows, who leaped high to corral a high throw and in one quick swoop tagged the runner near first as South Carolina threatened once again.
The tournament didn’t get off to a successful start on or off the field for Post 45. In past tournaments, many of the teams traveled to Asheboro at less than full strength. Because of high school football, returning to college or various other reasons, teams battled at the regional shorthanded. For the first time, Post 45 found itself shorthanded as they were without two starters and a key piece to their pitching staff.
Catcher Grat Dalton, who had a stellar second-half of the season, missed due to a death in his family. Braylen Hayes, a solid two-way player who hit .368 with five home runs, 33 RBIs and 25 runs scored, missed due to a shoulder injury. Pitcher Drake Purvis was invited to a MLB-sponsored event in Alabama.
The tournament didn’t start out on the right foot on the field either as Post 45 dropped its first game for the first time since 2014, falling to Tennessee, 7-5.
RC started quickly enough, grabbing a three-run lead in the first inning as Meadows recorded a two-run hit and Braxton Walker drove in another with a triple, but Tennessee rallied to post the win. A bases-loaded triple by Baylan Tuten in the fifth inning proved to be the difference.
Post 45 regrouped for Game 2 as Randleman High School graduate and UNCG freshman Austin Lemons hurled a complete game in a 3-0 victory over Florida, sending Belleview back to the Sunshine State with its second straight setback. Lemons never faced more than four batters in any one inning as he finished with a four-hitter, walking three and fanning seven.
“Being around the strike zone all day,” Pugh said of Lemons’ gem. “His slider was good. We had a good game all the way around. We played good defense behind him.”
Center fielder Carter Brown and Marsh, at shortstop, each made stellar plays in the contest.
Post 45 scored once in the second on an RBI triple from Marsh, once in the third on a solo home run from Meadows and once in the sixth on an RBI single by Atkins.
“You can't stub your toe playing in the losers’ bracket, but it's still a matter of playing one game every day and trying to put yourself in position at the end,” Pugh said after the win.
Post 45 stayed alive Friday as they sent Kentucky home after a 17-1 win in five innings. Post 45 scored in every inning, tallying once in the first, twice in the second, six times in the third, once in the fourth and seven times in the seventh.
Post 45 recorded 10 hits in the game and was the beneficiary of six hit batters and six walks in the five innings.
Marsh had two hits, two runs scored and two RBIs: Atkins had one hit, two runs scored and three RBIs; Parks had two hits and two RBIs; Meadows had one hit, two runs scored and two RBIs; Connor Adams provided a spark in the seven hole with three hits, three runs scored and two RBIs; Carson Whitehead scored twice after being hit by pitches three times; and Pierce Leonard had a hit, two runs scored and two RBIs.
Braxton Walker threw four innings and Drew Harman one.
“We ran into a good team that was short on pitching,” Pugh said after the blowout win.
That set up Saturday’s thriller, in which Leonard had three hits. Carter Brown and Parks each had two.
“Obviously, we had a successful season,” Pugh said. “There are some people out here who don’t get all the notice who have improved tremendously and you can see it. We are always proud of that as coaches.”