After Friday night’s regular-season finale, East Surry head baseball coach Chad Freeman was the first to congratulate Mount Airy’s baseball team on one of most impressive turnarounds in the state this season.
But even the playoff-bound Granite Bears were no match for the red tide that swept into Mount Airy’s baseball field and rolled out with a Northwest 1A Conference co-championship.
“We knew this would be a tough game going in, and Mount Airy is one of the most improved teams around this season,” said Freeman. “But we put in a lot of work this season in order to call ourselves co-conference champions, and I’m proud of what we’ve done.”
The Cardinals led from wire to wire, taking a 1-0 lead when Garrett Willoughby hit a one-out double and then scored on an error with two down in the top of of the first inning. The visitors led 5-0 before their hosts could even get on the board. Mount Airy cut its deficit to 5-3 in the top of the fifth, but East Surry kept pushing and eventually earned a 10-4 victory.
East Surry (16-4, 9-1 NW1A) is likely to share the league crown with a Walkertown team that was hosting Atkins on Friday. The No. 1 playoff seed from the conference will likely be determined by the outcome of next week’s conference tournament. The Bears (11-8, 6-4) took third place outright in the conference and should return to the playoffs just one season removed from a dismal three-win campaign a year ago. Mount Airy will open the conference tournament on Monday at home against Atkins (5-18, 0-9).
Two things made a huge difference on Friday. One was junior pitcher Kain Kiser, who was dominating in the first four innings as his team pushed out to a 5-0 lead with the run in the first, another in the second, two more in the fourth and one in the top of the fifth. Kiser weakened a little in his second two innings of work, but was still good enough.
The other difference-maker was a play made by Cardinal center fielder Luke Horton during Mount Airy’s fifth-inning rally.
Kiser plunked the Bears’ Robert Brown in the back leading off the inning. With one out, Matthew Dodd reached on an error, and Kiser uncorked a wild pitch that moved both runners into scoring position. Then Alex Creed swatted a single through the third base-shortstop gap to put the Bears on the board. Dodd followed Brown around the bases and also scored when Kiser dropped a relay throw home.
With the score 5-2 and Creed on third, Kiser struck out the next batter for the second out, but Cole Shelton singled through the middle on a 2-1 pitch to make it 5-3. A wild pitch moved Shelton up, and Clay Taylor swatted a single of his own. Shelton decided to challenge Horton’s arm in shallow center, but the senior threw a perfect strike to catcher Tyler Chilton at home plate. On a bang-bang play at home, the umpire ruled that Chilton’s tag just did beat Shelton to the plate.
The Cardinals got the runs back in the top of the sixth. Mount Airy contributed to its own problems when they dropped a fly ball to start the inning and allowed John Marion to reach base. A walk to Garrett Willoughby was followed by an A.J. Wilson sacrifice fly, a Kiser RBI double, and then a wild pitch and a passed ball that led to another run.
The Bears hit the ball hard in the sixth inning off a tiring Kiser, but he got help from his teammates in the form of Trevor Hauser snagging a hard-hit line drive and doubling a man off first base, and then, with two out and a man on, second baseman Willoughby made a spectacular leaping catch on a line drive by Matthew Dodd to end the inning.
Horton replaced Kiser on the mound in the seventh inning and allowed the last Bear run, with Creed reaching and then scoring on a groundout.
Kiser struck out nine batters in his six innings of work, his longest outing since returning from an injury a few weeks ago.
“I’m really proud of Kain,” said Freeman. “He came back from an injury and he’s been back throwing the past couple of weeks. It was good to see him come in and work six innings. He’s going to provide us with even more depth as we move on.”
The Cardinals, ranked fifth in the state by MaxPreps.com, have a bye in the first round of the conference tournament and will find out their second-round opponent after Monday’s opening-round games.