LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Coming into the post season many people weren’t picking South Laurel to emerge as 13th Region champions.
After all, the Cardinals went 5-6 over their last 11 games, including some lopsided loses to Middlesboro (13-5), North Laurel (13-3) and Somerset (20-8). But the Cardinal also finished 6-0 in district play to garner them the No. 1 seed in the district.
South ended the regular season on a high note with a 3-1 win over Harlan County. That sparked a six game winning streak that culminated with an impressive 8-2 win over Middlesboro Thursday to capture the region title and advance to this week’s state baseball tournament in Lexington.
“Everything we talked about heading up to the tournament we did,” South Laurel coach Wynn Harris said. “We had good pitching, good defense, we ran the bases well and we put the ball in play. We kept fighting to live another day.”
The fight was led by senior catcher Stephen Simpson. During the post season, Simpson batted .625 with four singles, four doubles, one triple, one home run and drove in seven runs. For his play in the region tournament, he was named MVP. In the game, he singled and hit a two-run homer that just curled inside the foul post in left field in the third inning, an inning that also saw Trey Martin hit his first home run, also a two-run shot.
Another key contributor was Joe Gaines, who batted .615 with five singles, three doubles and scored seven runs. But as Harris pointed out, this was never about individuals.
“There’s not one guy that has been a dominate force on our team all year,” Harris said. “We are a team. Everybody picks everybody up.”
After Middlesboro’s upset over North Laurel in the semifinals many wondered if the Yellowjackets were a team of destiny, as their coach, Billy Powell, was retiring after more than 20 years at the helm. But there would be no fairy tale ending this time.
Pitching would prove to be the key difference in the game. Middlesboro had used its top two pitchers in the first two games, so neither would be available for mound duty. The Cards were without the services of Daniel Neal, who suffered an elbow strain in the win over Harlan County in the tournament opener, and Charlie Davis, who got the win in the semifinals. Alex Sears also had a tender arm and probably wouldn’t be called into duty.
Harris elected to go with Austin Vigeant. The sophomore lefty picked up the win in the regular season finale against Harlan County. He went 2 1/3 innings against Middlesboro, allowing one run on three hits.
After a shaky first inning, he settled down until Martin took over.
“Austin did a great job,” Harris said. Still, he was removed in the top of the third with the bases loaded and one out. Trey Martin took over and finished the game.
“Trey, all year, has been our No. 1 or No. 2, along with Neal,” Harris said. “We knew he probably couldn’t go seven innings, so we started Austin.”
Martin cruised until the seventh inning, when two walks and a hit batter loaded the bases with two outs and the Cardinals leading, 8-1. Harris went out to the mound to talk to his freshman hurler.
“I asked Trey if he wanted me to take him out,” Harris said. “He said, ‘heck no,’ so I left him in.”
“I just wanted to get the last out,” Martin said. “I knew my teammates would pick me up.”
After walking in a run, Martin got John Millett to fly out to Trent Abner in center to end the game.
South Laurel struck first, scoring two runs in the bottom of the first off Lucas Crawford, and never looked back. The Cards added five in the third and a single run in the fourth.
Abner and Gaines opened the bottom of the first with back-to-back singles and both scored on a double by Sears for the 2-0 lead.
A stellar defensive play by Gaines at second highlighted the second inning. Millett sent a pop fly that looked destined to fall into shallow right-center, but Gaines tracked back and made a sensational over the shoulder catch to rob Millett of a hit.
Middlesboro scored its first run in the third when, with the bases loaded, Thomas Epperson was hit by a Vigeant pitch to force in Chris Short. The Yellowjackets left the bases loaded in the inning, and would strand nine in the game.
Then came the bottom of the third as the Cardinals struck for five runs and inched even closer to a region title.
Gaines got things started with a single to left. After Sears grounded out, Neal reached on an error when Epperson fielded the ball at short, but his throw to first was high, and Gaines scored on the play.
That brought Simpson to the plate, and he smacked a two-run homer to left to up the lead to 5-1. Drew Irvin then singled to center, bringing Martin to the plate. He sent a long fly ball to the wall in left, where Short leaped and looked to have made the catch. But when he came down, he looked in his glove, and saw nothing, as the ball went over the fence and upped South’s lead to 7-1.
The Cards made it 8-1 in the fifth when Abner reached on an error and later scored on a ground out by Neal. Middlesboro would get one run in the seventh and leave the bases loaded and the Cardinals booked their ticket to Whitaker Bank Park with an 8-2 win.
For Harris, the win gives him his second region title. South last won the region in 2009.
“This feels as good as the first,” Harris said. “It fuels your fire to get your kids a chance to play on the big stage. The state tournament is a stage. It’s their turn to shine. The kids worked hard and sacrificed a lot, and they built character. I’m excited for them.”
Harris must now prepare his team for Ashland Blazer, as the Tomcats won the 16th Region title and will face South Laurel Tuesday at 6 p.m.
“We are a young team, but we have experience with that youth,” Harris said. “This group of seniors (Stephen Simpson, Chase McWhorter, Drew Irvin and Charlie Davis) took ownership of this team. You don’t have to be the best team in the tournament, just the best team that night.”
Sears, Irvin, Gaines and Martin were named to the all-tournament team, along with Simpson being named MVP. Zach Storm and Ryan Shears were named to the team from North Laurel.