Prep Baseball Playoffs: Lake Norman 4, East Rowan 3
By Mike London
MOORESVILLE ó East Rowan left fielder Ben DeCelle charged swiftly and desperately. He cut loose the strongest ó and last ó throw of his baseball career, but he had no chance.
Lake Norman No. 8 hitter Nick Keith delivered the biggest swing of his life Wednesday. His two-out single in the bottom of the seventh off Wildcat-killer Corbin Shive drove in two runs and beat East 4-3 in the fourth round of the 3A playoffs.
“It came down to the last strike, but with us and East, I wouldn’t have expected anything different,” Lake Norman coach Robert Little said. “That last ball was hit just perfect for us. Just soft enough. Any harder and that left fielder probably throws us out.”
Keith’s single bounced inches out of the reach of third baseman Noah Holmes and deflected off the glove of diving shortstop Preston Troutman. Troutman’s fantastic effort wasn’t rewarded.
“If it doesn’t hit Preston’s glove maybe I get him at the plate,” DeCelle said. “Preston gave everything he had. Noah gave everything he had. Lake Norman just caught a couple more breaks than we did.”
There were breaks both ways ó and broken hearts on the East side of things.
While Lake Norman takes major momentum into its 3A West championship series against Tuscola, most of the Mustangs move on to American Legion ball. Not DeCelle. The future UNC Pembroke receiver played his last baseball game last night.
East coach Brian Hightower will get over it, but it’ll take a little time.
“I can’t second-guess myself on anything,” Hightower said. “Corbin’s our best ó he made a good pitch. Their kid just found a hole, and sometimes things like that happen. We’ve been doing that to people for the five years I’ve been here.”
The third meeting this season of the NPC powerhouses was played at neutral Mooresville because Lake Norman’s field was still suffering the effects of Tuesday’s storms.
The crowd was intense from the fourth inning on, after two Lake Norman batters were hit by pitches but not awarded first base. The ruling was they had made no attempt to avoid the pitches.
Zach Smith’s three-run homer in the third inning gave the Mustangs (23-5) control most of the night.
With DeCelle and Troutman on base, Smith hit a mistake, something soft and belt-high, from Lake Norman starter Nick Lomascolo. Smith skied the ball down the left-field line. It stayed just fair. It barely cleared the fence.
Troutman started on the mound for East and dodged disaster in the first inning when second baseman Ethan Fisher turned Eric Manser’s liner into a double play. The Wildcats (24-2) didn’t score that inning despite two walks, a single and a hit batsman.
It appeared Troutman might Houdini his way through the third as well, but Lake Norman’s Joe Faist started his team’s comeback with a two-out, two-run single.
Shive took the mound for the fourth and started logging strikeouts and zeroes.
Lomascolo held East in check after Smith’s homer. Ross Whitley relieved him as the game, played in front of an overflow crowd, moved into the sixth inning.
Lake Norman put two on in the sixth, but Fisher ranged far to his right to glove a grounder to get Shive out of the inning.
Fisher’s single and Troutman’s walk gave Smith a chance to hit with two men on and two out in the seventh. A hit may have put the game away, but Whitley struck out the East slugger.
“He’s one of the big bats in that lineup,” Whitley said. “He watched a curve for a strike, and then I got him to chase a couple of high fastballs.”
Shive was confident going to the last of the seventh. He was working on a streak of 16 straight scoreless innings against Lake Norman dating back to last season.
He opened the inning with his sixth strikeout. Next up was the Catawba-bound Whitley for a pivotal at-bat.
“The first pitch was outside, but it was called a strike,” Whitley said. “But then on Shive’s 2-2 pitch (at the knees), I got a break. Maybe it was a makeup call. I was standing up there thinking, ‘Wow, I’m still alive.’ Then I fouled one off. Then ball four was over my head.”
That walk started trouble. Faist then surprised the Mustangs with a perfect bunt, and there were two on. Donnie Burt rolled a grounder to first baseman Matt Miller for the second out, but both runners moved up.
Keith was next. He squeezed one through the left side, and the Wildcats had a dramatic walk-off win over a team that had beaten them in four of five meetings the last two seasons.
“East is a great team and, they have been all year,” Whitley said quietly. “So are we.”
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