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Uwharrie Charter Academy pitcher Jake Hunter was named the championship series’ Most Outstanding Player.    Photo Johanna Holland Painter

UCA wins second straight state championship

HOLLY SPRINGS — The road may have been a bit more tricky, a bit more difficult and with a few more heart-pounding moments, but that very well may be why this year’s state 1-A baseball championship is a little bit sweeter for Uwharrie Charter Academy.


Jake Hunter and Brett Smith once again shined brightly under the “bright lights” of the state championship series as the Eagles defended the state title they captured a year ago with a 2-1 eight-inning win over Northside-Pinetown in Game 1 Friday night followed by a 6-1 victory Saturday afternoon at Ting Stadium.


“I am not taking anything away from last year's team, this was a separate road to get here, “ said coach Rob Shore after his team finished the season 28-6, including wins in 22 of their last 23 games. “We faced some better competition and better arms this year. I felt like our guys really stood out. Once our seniors took over a leadership role, we took off and it was a fun ride.”


While the seniors led the offense, it was the pitching of Hunter, a sophomore, and the junior Smith who stymied opponents all season long.


After Hunter fired the eight-inning complete-game win in Game 1, allowing five hits with 11 strikeouts, Smith followed in Game 2 by surrendering a run in the first and nothing else the rest of the way. He allowed two hits in the first inning and just two after that.


Hunter, for his efforts in Game 1, was named the most outstanding player.


“I think it gave me experience because I was in that situation before,” Hunter said of returning to the mound in a state championship series. “It was great winning it back-to-back. This year was a little tougher. I think we faced better arms.”


Except for Mount Airy’s Kamden Hawks, who handed the Eagles their only setback in the past 23 games — a 1-0 shutout in Game 2 of the West Region finals — no team could boast the talent on the mound the Eagles had all season. 


“Everyone knows winning a state championship starts on the mound,” Shore said. “You have to have guys who don’t give away bases and don’t walk people.”


On Friday night, Carter Brown’s one-out single in the eighth scored Troy Carver with the game-winning run after Landon Zephir’s clutch two-out single plated the tying run in the seventh.


The Eagles were tested early Saturday as the Panthers scored once in the first for a 1-0 lead. But in the UCA third, the Eagles erupted for four runs after the first two batters had been retired. Hits from Walker Wilkins, Caleb Stickle and Brown tied the game at 1-1 before Trey Kennedy lofted a towering three-run homer for a 4-1 lead.


“I expected a fastball and I got my hands to it and hit it,” Kennedy said of his eighth home run of the season. “I had been overthinking and not being confident. In the cage, I made some adjustments and the results were there.”


Shore said Kennedy had been flying open and his timing was a bit off. They spent some time in the cage, taking his front foot a little toward the plate to help keep his hips locked longer.


“That one little tip he implemented well and it helped him out,” Shore said.


Leading 4-1, UCA added two more runs in the fifth on a pair of errors and a hit from Grat Dalton.


That was more than enough for Smith.


“You win a state championship and everyone expects you to do it again and you have a target on your back and it makes pressure a little tougher and makes everyone understand they have to step up their play,” Shore said. “To be able to come back and win it with that banner of ‘these are the defending state champions.’ This year was such a big deal for us to rise to that challenge.”