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The relatively stress-free environment through three state tournament games for the Wilson City Little League Ages 8-9 All-Stars is now a full-blown tug of war.
Any designs that Wilson had on a Thursday night championship coronation at the North Carolina Little League Ages 8-9 State Tournament were put on hold after Lake Norman’s Jackson Drury laced a seventh-inning single into center field, scoring Austin Baxter and forcing a winner-take-all game Friday night at Southern Bank Stadium following a 4-3 Lake Norman victory.
Wilson, which served as the visiting team Thursday, will be the home team Friday after winning a post-game coin flip. First pitch is set for 6 p.m. Wilson gave itself margin for error after beating Lake Norman 7-1 Tuesday night in the winners bracket final, while Lake Norman blanked Kernersville 10-0 in four innings to insert itself into the championship round.
Thursday’s game opened as a classic defensive struggle until Wilson’s defense uncharacteristically blinked in the bottom of the fourth inning. Having entered without an error in three games, Wilson’s middle infield produced a pair of mistakes in the inning.
Still, the hosts nearly escaped the jam. With an 0-2 count, Wilson pulled starter Camden Efird, who had reached his pitch limit but could finish the batter in Connor Kullman.
Landon High entered and got a fielder’s choice groundout and hit Trendyn Motley to load the bases, but got Drury to pop out to shortstop for the second out. Forcing Bryson Ulhorn into an 0-2 count, Ulhorn poked it into right center, scoring a pair and giving Lake Norman a 2-0 lead, its first over Wilson in 9 2/3 innings. Efird, the only Wilson pitcher who will not be available for Friday’s game, departed after 3 1/3 innings, allowing two unearned runs without a hit.
“Those two guys are normally routine,” Wilson head coach Eric Lewis said. “They don’t make many errors, but you know what? In four baseball games, two errors? They’re 9 (years old).”
Wilson pulled a run back in the fifth after Charlie Maddrey reached on an error. Farris Carinci entered and took second on a wild pitch, moved to second on third on Mack Wiggins’ bunt and scored on Stone Massey’s single.
Lake Norman got that run back in the bottom of the inning on Kullman’s run-scoring single into center field, making it 3-1. But the lead wouldn’t last.
Drury, who went five innings and allowed just two hits and an unearned run for Lake Norman over that span, saw his lead evaporate in the sixth. After Charlie Scott walked and Efird was hit by a pitch, Peyton Gardener tied it at 3 with his two-run double past the onrushing Lake Norman center fielder.
Massey took the ball in relief in the sixth and stranded a pair of runners in scoring position. Drury singled and Ulhorn walked, allowing Zachary Walsh to move the runners over with two outs. But with a base open to the No. 9 hitter, Wilson elected not to issue the intentional walk. It worked, as Massey recorded a strikeout to end the threat and force extra innings.
Wilson looked as if it would seize the lead in the seventh. Massey led off with a double and moved to third on a groundout. However, with Connor Lewis at the plate, he sent a shallow fly ball to Kullman in center field.
Massey was sent plateward, but was tagged out trying to return to third.
Kullman, who opened at catcher replaced Motley, Lake Norman’s clean-up hitter, in center field after he departed due to the discomfort of being hit by a High pitch in the fourth.
“That one’s on me,” Eric Lewis said. “I’m going to own that one. I sent him only to draw the throw. He’s a big guy and it takes him a little while to slow down to get back. But he did exactly what I asked him to do. It’s a Little League play. A kid overthrows, and we take the lead right there and it’s a different ballgame.”
Wilson, which used six pitchers, went to Angel Saldana and Charlie Scott in the seventh. Two walks preceded a pop out to Scott and a strikeout, and Drury’s first-pitch single finished it.
“That was one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of,” Andrew Kline said. “It was really fun. That’s a great team over there, and our guys know it. We’re just really happy to play a good game with them.”
Saldana was tagged with the loss for Wilson, facing just one batter. Hudson Kline won for Lake Norman in relief, allowing two hits over two innings of work in relief of Drury.
“This will have been over a week now,” Andrew Kline said of staying in Wilson. “So Wilson’s our second home at this point!”
Each team finished with four hits. Massey was 2 for 4 with his double to pace Wilson, while Drury went 2 for 4 to lead Lake Norman.
Score by innings:
Wilson 000 012 0 — 3
Lake Norman 000 210 1 — 4
Two on, two out when winning run scored.
WP-Hudson Kline 2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 SO. LP-Angel Saldana 0 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 SO.
LEADING HITTERS — Wilson: Stone Massey 2-4, 2B, RBI, Peyton Gardener 1-1, 2B, 2 RBI, Camden Efird 1-1; Lake Norman: Jackson Drury 2-4, RBI, Bryson Uhlhorn 1-2, 2 RBI, Connor Kullman 1-4, RBI.