MORGANTON — After two hard-fought days, the East Surry Little League U12 All-Stars are halfway to a state championship.
The Cardinals’ Luke Bowman hit a two-run homer off Coulwood-Oakdale pitcher Ethan Suchenski in the bottom of the fourth inning, completing a comeback from a 5-0 deficit as East Surry took a 6-5 lead and held it the rest of the afternoon to move into the semifinals of the North Carolina Little League Championship Series.
The win gave the Cardinals their second come-from-behind victory over the tournament. In Friday night’s opener, they scored five runs in the sixth inning to claim an 8-5 win over Jackson County.
The team will play Greenville-North State, the District 4 champion, today at 1 p.m. for the right to advance to the championship game. The winner will need to win just one more game to be state champion, while the loser will have to win one elimination game for a shot at a rematch later in the week. Many of these players were members of a U10 team that won a state title for ESLL in 2015, and then came within a few outs of winning the U12 title a year ago.
Coul-Oak, the champions of District 3 (northeast Charlotte area), appeared dominant in the early part of Saturday’s game at Catawba Meadows Park in Morganton. The Reds needed just two batters to take a quick early lead. The first Coul-Oak batter of the game singled, and the second one homered for a 2-0 lead.
In the second inning, the Cardinals gave the Reds some help they really didn’t need. After the first Coul-Oak batter struck out, back-to-back fielding errors put two runners on base. Jordan Davis responded with his second strikeout of the inning, but the old adage about never giving a team four outs in an inning bit East Surry on the butt when the next batter swatted a double to right and drove in two runs. A single followed to drive in another unearned run for the Reds, and they took a 5-0 lead before Davis could pitch his way out of the mess his defense had put him in.
Coul-Oak pitching set the Cardinals down 1-2-3 in their half of the second, but East Surry buckled down defensively and didn’t let the Reds add to their lead in the top of the third. In the bottom half of the inning, the Cardinal bats came to life.
It was Davis who appropriately began his team’s fight-back, dropping a bunt down the third-base line for a leadoff single. Brown followed with a double to center field, and Davis circled the bases for the first East Surry run of the game. One out later, a hit by Folger Boaz pulled East Surry within 5-2. Coul-Oak got the next man for the second out, but then Anthony Ayers launched a home run to center field, allowing Boaz to score ahead of him as the Reds’ lead dwindled to 5-4.
Daniel Creech pitched a scoreless top of the fourth for East Surry, and by this time the momentum was clearly on the side of the Cardinals. With one out in the bottom half of the inning, Stephen Keener entered the game as a pinch-hitter and swatted a single to left. Davis pinch-ran for him, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway; Bowman made it easy for the runner on first when he crushed a ball to center field and over the fence to give the Cardinals the lead.
East Surry still had six outs to get, and Coul-Oak wasn’t just going to roll over. The Reds kept the Cardinals from scoring anymore, and immediately made a bid to regain the lead in the fifth. With one out, an error followed by a base hit put the go-ahead run on base for Coul-Oak. But Davis, who had committed the error, redeemed himself by getting to the next grounder and nabbing a runner at second. With two down, pitcher Creech forced another ground ball, and second baseman Will Jones made the play to first to end the Reds’ threat.
East Surry again failed to build its lead in the bottom of the fifth, but the Cardinals were just three outs from victory now. Coul-Oak went down 1-2-3 in the top of the sixth against Brown and Boaz pitching.
In addition to being on the mound when the final out was nailed down, Boaz was also a perfect 3-for-3 at the plate. Bowman went 2-for-3 with three RBI and two runs scored. East Surry had a 10-8 edge in team hits.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.