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Golden Leaf Invitational, don’t ever change.
The Wilson high school baseball Easter tournament, originated in 2014 by Hunt coach Jon Smith and Fike coach Buck Edmundson, has become an annual exercise in arithmetic for coaches, players, fans and, especially, sports writers.
The tournament is a round-robin affair with a pre-determined schedule and format for determining a champion that is wacky, exciting and creates doubt and trepidation among those who attempt to figure it out. The idea is straightforward: Each team plays three games and the one with the best record wins the tournament.
Except that usually more than one team will go 3-0 so it goes to tiebreakers. The first tiebreaker is the combined record of each team, which changes with every game. The second tiebreaker is runs allowed. If that criteria came first, the process would be fairly cut-and-dried. The team that has allowed the fewest runs would be the champion. But that would be no fun and besides, if a team happens to find itself playing weaker teams, it could breeze through the tournament without being challenged.
So the idea of elevating opponents’ records as the first tiebreaker has its merit, even if it’s not the most popular method. Ever since the Golden Leaf began, I’ve heard grumbling that it’s not the right way to determine a champion and I won’t disagree. The only way to truly determine a champion is on the field.
The old Breakfast Optimist Easter Tournament that had its heyday at Fleming Stadium in the early to mid 1980s was a straight-up eight-team affair with a winners bracket and a losers bracket that was determined by the first-round results. Every team was guaranteed to play three games and there would be a champion and runner-up, along with third-place, fourth-place, fiffh-place and so on and son.
The first Golden Leaf could have been set up like that since only eight teams were invited. But from the beginning, Smith found that it was easier to attract teams to play in it if they were given a set schedule. Since teams were coming from well outside the immediate area (a tradition that continued with Jamestown Ragsdale playing this year), Smith concluded that it was better to just play round-robin and devise a method to determine a champion.
It became a moot point the following year when the Golden Leaf’s instant popularity — owing to the first-class manner in which it was run and the ability to play at historic Fleming — led to 20 teams competing in 2015. That number changed slightly over the following years but it has remained around 18 or 20 teams.
Smith said that at some point the Golden Leaf could become a smaller tournament and the format switch to a double-bracket with a championship game would be considered. But as long as there are more than 12 teams playing, there’s no way to do that.
Smith also noted that scheduling, of which Edmundson handles the majority, can be an ordeal, too.
“The aggravating thing on me and Buck’s end is the schedule,” he said. “Everybody wants to have a game they think they’ll win, a game that’s even and a game they could win.”
So here we are with the format that sends everyone scrambling to find pencil and paper and try to figure out who has a chance to win and who doesn’t. Well, maybe not everyone since I got several calls Monday and Tuesday asking if I had it figured out yet.
But that’s a big part of the fun, trying to keep up with all the possibilities (which make your “head spin,” according to Smith) under the yoke of possibility you might be wrong. And if you are wrong, you usually discover it after you’ve posted it on Twitter or told a group of people.
There’s nothing like it and it’s what I look forward to every year, even if some folks think there’s a better way to determine a champion. That may be true but there’s no substitute for the craziness that is the Golden Leaf Invitational.
Coming at the latest point of the season since it began, the Golden Leaf this year also served as a tune-up for playoff-bound teams as well as a chance to improve their Maxpreps.com ranking. Fike, obviously, came out the best as the Golden Demons not only won the tournament but defeated a pair of 4-A teams in Cardinal Gibbons and Ragsdale. Tuesday’s game against South Granville was the last on the schedule for the Demons, who finished 20-1 assuming they won’t pick up a game next week. Fike, which won the 3-A Big East Conference, could potentially move up in the 3-A rankings from the No. 5 spot it currently holds. The Demons are unofficially No. 3 in the 3-A East behind No. 1 and unbeaten Wilmington New Hanover and No. 2 D.H. Conley (20-2), which helped its cause with a 9-4 win over 2-A No. 4 Whiteville in the Pitt County Easter Tournament on Tuesday.
Hunt finished the Golden Leaf 2-1 and with an impressive 1-0 win over 2-A No. 6 North Johnston. If nothing else, sophomore Gavin Huff’s two-hit shutout of the Panthers left Smith with the knowledge that Huff is a solid No. 2 pitcher on the staff behind junior Tyson Bass. The Warriors (15-5) have one game scheduled — seeding game against Rocky Mount at Fleming Stadium on May 1 to determine the No. 2 spot from the Big East.
North Johnston certainly didn’t hurt itself in the Golden Leaf, going 2-1. The Panthers still have to play dangerous North Pitt (16-6) twice next week to claim at least a share of the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference title. North Johnston (18-2) is tied with Nash Central at 7-1 atop the EPC. The Bulldogs had a rough time this week, losing 13-3 to tournament runner-up and 1-A Carolina Conference champion Rosewood and falling 3-0 to Cardinal Gibbons before beating Northern Nash 7-4 on Tuesday.
Finally, C.B. Aycock has to feel good about itself after winning two of three in the Golden Leaf. Coupled with the Golden Falcons’ 6-4 defeat of Rosewood last week, Aycock has won three of its last four. Not bad when you consider CBA is 5-17.
Unless they win the 3-A/4-A Eastern Carolina Conference tournament next week, the Falcons are going to miss the state playoffs for the first time since 2005 when they went 16-8 but finished third in the 3-A Eastern Carolina Conference and only 32 teams made the NCHSAA playoffs. Aycock hasn’t had a losing season in at least three decades but the late-season surge and the majority of the starters back signals that the bad times may not last long in Pikeville.
Fike junior Hunter Stokely was named the recipient of the James R. “Rabbit” Fulghum MVP award for the 2019 Golden Leaf. Stokely hit .556 (5 for 9) with three runs scored, an RBI and a pair of stolen bases. He was the winning pitcher with 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief in Fike’s 3-2 opening-round win against Cardinal Gibbons.
West Johnston junior Josh Harlow earned the Earl Boykin Outstanding Pitcher Award for throwing 6 2/3 shutout innings, allowing one hit, in the Wildcats’ 2-0 victory against Hunt on Monday. That was the middle of 19 scoreless innings by West Johnston pitching.
Harlow had some stiff competition from teammate Ryan Kennedy, who allowed just one hit in six innings of West Johnston’s 1-0 win over Fayetteville Freedom Christian on Saturday, and Hunt’s Huff with his gem against North Johnston on Tuesday.
Finally, North Johnston, a perennial Golden Leaf participant that always shows up and plays whoever is on the schedule, was awarded the Lee S. Gliarmis Sportsmanship Award, the first given posthumously to its namesake, who would be happy that high school baseball is alive and well in Wilson over the Easter weekend.