by Rob Grubbs
On paper, it seemed like it would be easier. The Region 3-AAAAA champion Starr’s Mill Panthers hosted the four seed from Region 2-AAAAA, the Ware County Gators, in a first-round playoff series. Based on records, it was a colossal mismatch, but on the field, it proved to be otherwise. The Panthers won both games at Panther Field Wednesday in the best-of-three series by the same score, 3-2, to move on, which is most important, but instead of blowing the Gators out, it was more of a survive and advance approach. Either way, the Panthers advanced and have a week to prepare for the next round.
Eli Jones got the start in game one and reeled off three perfect innings. The Panther offense gave him a lead in the bottom of the second. It started with a leadoff double by Sean White and followed by a Hunter Lawson single. Daniel Courtney sacrificed the run in with a perfect bunt to the third base side to score. Ware County responded with their first two hits of the game to tie in the top of the inning.
The Panthers retook the lead in the bottom of the 5th, this time with a two-out rally. The nine-hole hitter, Noah Preuer singled, Thad Ector drew a walk, and Brian Port drove in the run. Unfortunately, the Gators once again answered with a run on a double from Caleb Stewart to tie the game. Fortunately, the Panthers avoided further damage when Stewart was thrown out trying to stretch the double to a triple.
Chay Yeager came in to relieve Jones in the 7th inning and held the Gators run-less while waiting for the Panther offense to scratch out a winning run. Yeager decided to take matters into his own hands in the bottom of the 8th when he hit a triple to right field and scored on Sean White’s walk-off winner.
Courtney took the mound for game two and the Panthers immediately found themselves behind when a botched double play gave the Gators a first inning run. As in game one, both teams seemed to come right back, and it was the Panthers turn. Ector drove in Courtney in the top of the second to tie things up, and the Panthers scored single runs in the 4th and 6th but could never put the pesky Gators away.
Going to the bottom of the 7th, Courtney had a one-run lead. The Gators put the tying run at second with two outs, but the game ended on a Stewart line out to Wes Haney in left field. Courtney went the distance and only gave up two unearned runs.
While Coach Brent Moseley has watched his young team grow up in a pressure filled environment, there has been one constant all season, the play of shortstop Brian Port. He went 3-for-7 for the day with two RBIs and solid defense.
“I have coached a lot of good players, and even some great ones, but Brian may be the best one I have ever coached,” said Moseley. “He just does the little things that winners do. When he comes in the dugout after an inning, he always puts his batting helmet on, no matter where we are in the lineup. He is always ready.”
Up next for the Panthers will be another stern test, in the Locust Grove Wildcats who are solid top to bottom.
“We talk about doing things the right way, no matter who you play. That really comes into account when you play those guys,” said Moseley.
Starr’s Mill will host the three-game series that starts Thursday afternoon.