Cavaliers find a winning mix
Southern Lee and Northwood made state tournament runs last season and both the Cavaliers and Chargers have more than their fair share of returning players as they're getting this campaign going.
So it wasn't just run of the mill coaching encouragement when Northwood head coach Rick Parks challenged his team with, as the Chargers trailed by a run headed to the sixth inning at Cavalier Stadium Monday night, "hey, this is just like a playoff game."
It was only the second game for both sides. Southern Lee, which made the third round of states last spring, edged Northwood, which reached the 2A semifinals last season, 3-1. The result took both teams' records to 1-1; far from make or break at this point.
Southern Lee head coach David Miller hopes what worked for the Cavs for this hard-earned win will serve them well when the games are more critical.
"Hopefully this solidifies what we've been talking about," Miller said. "When we go out an do what we do well, we can play with anyone around."
Pitching, defense and taking advantage of offensive chances when they come makes up the main Cavalier equation.
Derek Jackson, Caleb Gaster and Connor Gaines teamed up to handle the pitching, holding the Chargers to five hits.
The Cavalier defense was tested, and had to strand nine Charger runners along the way, but it turned two double plays to erase major Charger scoring threats.
Southern Lee's offense got an early lead, then manufactured a valuable run for a two-run lead in the sixth.
Jared Kehagias and Freddy McCollum drew walks off Charger starter Steven Strong to lead off the Cavalier first. Ethan Helsman sharply lined to left field driving Kehagias in for a Cavalier lead. Strong, who wound up pitching 5.0 innings, worked out of the danger from there.
In the second, the Chargers loaded the bases with Jon McKee walking, Jordan Riggsbee singling and Dylan Stasko walking off Jackson.
Jackson got a strikeout for one out, then gloved a one-hopper back to the mound and started a 1-2-3, home-to-first double play.
The Cavs made it 2-0 in the third with McCollum racing to third on a pitch in the dirt and scoring when the Charger throw to third skipped away into foul territory.
Northwood got a run back in the fourth when Chase Golden's one-out double, a drive into the left-center field gap, scored Riggsbee who had led off the frame with a walk.
Gaster came on for Jackson after Golden's double, facing runners on second and third, and needed one pitch to escape the jam.
Adam Lowe, Northwood's leadoff hitter, tried putting down a suicide squeeze but popped up his bunt. Helsman, the Cavalier catcher, scrambled toward the backstop to make the catch, then wheeled to throw to third for a double play.
Gaster worked around two Chargers reaching base in the sixth and the Cavs tacked a little bit of cushion on in the home half.
Jackson opened the Cavalier sixth hitting a rocket one-hopping off the left-center field fence for a double.
Jackson was thrown out at the plate, with Charger third baseman Trevor Hackney gloving a chopper and firing home for the first out.
The Cavs still loaded the bases with one out and Gaines, with his first at-bat of the game, hit a grounder to short for a fielder's choice scoring Cullen Boyette.
"The third run changed the whole complexion of the seventh inning. That was a big RBI by Connor," Miller said.
Gaines made short work of the Charger seventh for the save, getting the last two outs with strikeouts. Gaster, going 2.2 innings with two hits, no runs, no walks and four strikeouts, got the win.
Strong allowed four hits and two walks while striking out six.
McCollum, in the second spot of the Southern order, was the only Cav or Charger to have a multi-hit night, going 2-for-2 with a walk.
The Chargers are slated to host Chapel Hill Thursday at 7 p.m. The Cavaliers go into Cape Fear Valley Conference play on Friday at Western Harnett at 7 p.m.