BROOKLET — Late innings have been the undoing of Southeast Bulloch in close games, and there were plenty of close contests for the Yellow Jackets this season.
Whether it be giving up walk-off hits against Statesboro and ECI, or giving up late leads against Toombs County and Jenkins — one would think SEB would be numb to the sting of taking it on the chin late in a game.
However, nothing quite prepares a team to have a tie game stripped from your clutches in back-to-back games to end your season for good.
North Hall came to Brooklet as an unusually staunch three-seed from region 7-3A after pulling an first round upset against Pace Academy last week. They’d come four hours from Gainesville to do the same, taking back-to-back games from SEB 11-3 and 5-1 to end the Yellow Jackets 2017 campaign. In both games SEB would take 1-1 ties into the fifth inning, and in both games they’d lose those leads in drastic fashion.
“You have to tip your cap to North Hall tonight,” said head coach Brandon Peterson. “They got up there in big situations and got clutch hits. Sometimes it’s not what you did wrong it’s what you did right.”
Starting pitchers Bryce Harnage and Tyler Thorton were the rocks which stabilized SEB’s team all season and would appropriately keep SEB in a majority of both games. Both were all-region players and for Harnage it was his third time pitching in the sweet 16 in what had been a storied career of him in blue and gold.
But of all the pitchers he had faced this year, there was a good chance none had the stuff junior Reese Olson was throwing for North Hall. According to his Perfect Game profile, Olson has a fastball that tops out at 89 mph — putting him the the 96th percentile of other Perfect Game juniors in terms of fastball velocity.
It was that lively fastball coupled with a decent curve that would keep SEB off balance for a majority of the game. Yet even as he was undersized and outmatched in terms of velocity, Harnage found a way to stay step-for-step with the Gardner-Webb commit for most of game one.
“We expected two quality arms coming in and we had our chances against them,” Peterson said. “The first guy (Olson) was good for sure. He had a lively fastball and a sharp breaking ball to keep us in check.”
Even after seeing the bases loaded and giving up a single for the first run of the game in the first inning, Harnage forced a ground ball and a lineout to get his team out of the jam. Thorton, playing shortstop in game one, would score Tyler DeLoach after he led off the third inning with a triple to tie the game at 1-1. The game would stay tied going to the top of the fifth, but it was in the away-half of the frame North Hall started to figure out Harnage’s signature curveball.
North Hall would notch three extra base hits in the fifth to score four runs off Harnage and give the Trojans a 5-1 lead. Harnage’s game one line would end with eight hits, five runs (all earned), two walks and one strikeout. There was a bit of irony in the fact he’d end his career the way it started, but Harnage said he’d remember his time at SEB more for his teammates rather than the wins and losses.
“The experiences I’ve had with all the boys are things I won’t forget,” Harnage said. “And the fact I’ve made the playoffs all four years with these guys is even better.”
The game only got more out of hand as the senior made his exit. North Hall would rattle off six more runs in the top of the seventh to erase any real hopes of SEB getting back into the first game, but a game two loomed over the horizon with the talented young knuckleballer Thorton taking the mound for game two.
Thorton would find knuckleball to a bit more frisky than usual though, putting him in deep binds in the second and fourth innings. After he’d give up the tying run on a wild pitch with the bases loaded, Thorton would judicially work the next two batters for outs to prevent any further damage.
He’d come back to load the bases again after hitting two batters and walking another in the fourth, but a botched suicide squeeze by North Hall would bail the sophomore out of one out. Back-to-back flyouts would get Thorton out of the inning unscathed, but his day would be done after four innings.
“Both of them gave us quality starts, which is what we’ve come to expect of them,” Peterson said. “I was especially happy with our starting staff’s effort tonight.”
Tyler Deloach would pitch well enough going into the sixth inning to keep the game tied at 1-1, but with two on and two out Peterson would bring on Cole Mincey to try and righty-on-righty advantage. But the junior would struggle to gain control over his pitches, as he’d give up three walks and a single to allow North Hall to score four runs and once again break SEB spirits late in a game.
Just like in game one, North Hall only needed one pitcher to get through game two. Corban Meeler would throw all seven innings, 101 pitches to only give up three hits, one walk, one run and strikeout another eight batters. Meeler and Olson would combine to fan 16 Yellow Jackets between the two games, and the duo would combine to hold SEB to a .188/.218/.283 slashline in 14 innings of work.
Of the ten hits SEB compiled between the two games, Thorton, Michael Rigdon and Dyaln Raurks would combine for six of them — each one of them snagging two hits between the two contests. Subsequently Thorton and Ruarks would combine for three of the four RBI SEB had, with Mincey grabbing the other in game one.
Ridgon, Thorton and Raurks would combine to hit 6-18 (.333) while the rest of the team would go 6-37 (.162). Peterson will readily admit his team had chances to win, but couldn’t capitalize when they had runners in scoring position.
And even as the final two games of their season were disappointing, what should be noted is the bright future ahead of SEB. The team captured their first region title since 1980 behind a team comprised primarily of sophomores, and with only Harnage, Ty Cowart and Joe Ham leaving for graduation the core of the team returns next season.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys with experience, so the future is bright,” Peterson said. “We’re going to miss those three seniors. All three play the game the right way and have been an excellent influence on our younger players.”
SEB finishes the season 18-9 and 13-1 in their region to finish as region 3-3A champions.