ELKIN - After the Elkin game on April 13, Starmount head coach Mike McCann said Wilkes Central and Forbush were the top two teams in the Mountain Valley Conference, and rightfully so.
But after knocking off the Falcons in the conference tournament semifinals last Thursday, the Rams held off a thrilling comeback to top the Eagles 4-1 Monday night to capture the tournament crown.
Starmount has now undoubtedly thrust itself into that discussion.
“I think back to the first half of the season and you guys asked me about Wilkes Central and Forbush being No. 1 and 2, and I told you that they deserved to be there because they were the two best teams in the conference,” McCann explained. “But I think we have re-established that now.
“I felt that way all along, but my boys have worked hard and played hard. We went back to work and stayed focused,” he continued. “We knew the only way we could get the two seed was by winning the conference tournament, and that’s what we set out to do.”
Starmount topped county rival Forbush 7-2 last Thursday in the semifinals, setting up a championship battle with fourth-ranked Central.
The Rams threw all three aces at the Eagles and rode a Dillon Bray two-run home shot to the 4-1 victory, the conference title and the second seed among 2A clubs in the upcoming state playoffs.
Alex Barr, Tanner Mathis and Bray combined to throw a three-hitter against one of the top offensive squads in the state, limiting the Eagles to a lone run in the sixth, while working out of jams in six of the seven innings.
“I wasn’t going to come out and just spend one person - that way when we go into Friday, we have everybody,” McCann said. “We were going by pitch counts and innings. I thought all three of them came in and did a real good job.”
No jam was bigger than the final frame. After recording back-to-back strikeouts to begin in the inning, Bray allowed a single to right before issuing two-straight, questionable, full-count walks to load the bases.
In stepped slugger Martin Koon, who belted the Eagles into the title game with a walk-off home run to beat West Wilkes Thursday night in the semis. But Bray wasn’t shy about going at one of the top hitters in the conference.
“I was just going to go after him,” the senior explained. “If he hit it, he hit. If he didn’t, he didn’t. It felt good to get the out.”
Bray induced a championship-clenching pop up to Chase Thompson at second base to seal the victory and ensure the Rams would not be heading to defending-state champion Randleman in the first round of the playoffs.
Offensively, neither team could push a run across in the pitcher’s duel until the fifth.
Eugene Billips led off the inning with single past two diving defenders on the right-side of the infield. After a Luke Shore sac bunt and a wild pitch, the senior stood on third with one gone.
Dillon Dobson battled and drew a walk. On ball four, the ball got away from catcher Stefan Susi, allowing Billips to race home for the first run of the contest.
Two batters later, Bray cranked the first pitch he saw about nine rows up the center-field bleachers — approximately 385 feet — to give to the Rams a 3-0 advantage.
“That was a nice shot,” McCann said. “The good thing about it was that we had someone on in front of him so it wasn’t a solo shot. I’m happy for him.”
After the Eagles struck back in the sixth with a run, Dobson manufactured an insurance run in the top of the seventh.
The senior belted a screamer back up the middle with one out in the inning. After taking a dangerous lead at first, Susi fired a pick-off throw to the unsuspecting Koon as the ball sailed into right-field, allowing Dobson to trot to third.
A few pitches later, a wild pitch allowed the Appalachian State-signee to score.
With the win, Starmount wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the state playoffs, which begin Friday.
The Rams will travel to the second-ranked team from the Catawba Valley Conference, which is unknown at publication time, but Starmount will once again be, as McCann says, “road warriors.”
“We’re road warriors all the way,” he said. “Last year it was all up I-40, so it looks like we’re heading that way again. At least I’ll know where to stop and eat, right?”
Reach Matthew Gorry at 835-1513 or firstname.lastname@example.org.