Starmount captures MVAC tourney crown
Starmountâ€™s baseball team came into the 2012 season as the favorite to win the Mountain Valley 1A/2A Conference.
In a vote of league coaches for Yadkin Valley Sportsâ€™ spring preview magazine, the Rams edged Wilkes Central as the team to beat.
Despite having all-conference pitcher Alex Barr shelved for awhile due to injury, Starmount opened the season with three straight conference wins, including one over the top returning 1A team, West Wilkes.
But then the bottom seemed to drop out. First, Starmount lost a wild 12-11 decision at East Surry in a non-conference contest. Then Wilkes Central hammered the Rams 13-5 in Boonville. Five days later, Forbush mercy-ruled Starmount 13-1 in six innings. The Rams managed just one hit against their county rival and didnâ€™t score until the bottom of the sixth.
That stretch was easily the low point of the season, especially losing in such a lopsided way to the two conference rivals at home.
â€śWe had a bad week,â€ť Starmount coach Mike McCann said. â€śThose two teams beat us and we deserved to lose. Donâ€™t get me wrong on that. But we had a bad week, we didnâ€™t play well and we couldnâ€™t hit our spots. When you donâ€™t hit your spots against (Wilkes Central) or Forbush, they are going to make you pay.â€ť
A lesser team may have thrown in the towel on the season at that point. The Rams had already fallen a couple games off the pace of the Eagles and Falcons in the conference.
But to know Starmount under McCannâ€™s leadership is to know that what you see in March doesnâ€™t always reflect what youâ€™ll see by May. To quote another coach in the conference, youâ€™d better get Starmount early, as they tend to improve from week to week.
The Rams did in fact regroup, and while there have been a few more bumps in the road since that fateful March week, McCannâ€™s team was standing tallest as the Mountain Valley 1A/2A season came to a close Monday night.
Starmount won for the 11th time in its last 13 outings, defeating Wilkes Central 4-1 in the MVAC tournament championship game, played at Elkin High School.
Dillon Bray hit a two-run homer in the fifth inning. The senior then took over the reins on the mound in the final innings and closed out the significant victory by getting Wilkes Centralâ€™s clean-up hitter, Martin Koon, to hit a two-out, bases-loaded pop up to end the game. Koon had hit a walkoff homer to beat West Wilkes in the semifinals last Thursday.
Mondayâ€™s victory brought things almost full circle for the once struggling Rams. While Wilkes Central won the regular season trophy, Starmount had made amends for their rough start. The road to the championship game included a win over Forbush in the semifinals last week.
â€śWe went back to work,â€ť McCann said. â€śThe kids worked hard and stayed focused.â€ť
One of the biggest turning point moments in the season, according to McCann, came on a Friday night when the Rams hosted a unique conference/non-conference doubleheader against West Wilkes and East Surry. Starmount lost the conference game to West Wilkes by an 8-4 score. But between games, something seemed to click.
The Rams routed East Surry 7-0 in the nightcap and then proceeded to reel off a win streak of eight straight. They beat Wilkes Central in eight innings, recovering after Koon hit a grand slam in the seventh inning to tie the game. They avenged the Forbush loss, putting up a 5-0 shutout in East Bend.
A loss at Davie on April 25 ended the streak, but a win over East Wilkes two nights later put Starmount in position to finish in a tie with Forbush as conference runners-up.
But North Wilkes spoiled that scenario, pulling off the 8-7 upset. Forbush then beat Wilkes Central, and Starmount suddenly faced the prospect of getting the No. 3 seed from the conference for the state playoffs â€“ which means a date at defending state champion Randleman in round one.
The only way to avoid that scenario was to win the conference tournament.
You know now how that quest turned out.
â€śIt feels good to win the series with Forbush and Wilkes Central,â€ť Bray said. â€śAnd it felt good to get that two seed back.â€ť
The first four innings Monday proved a defensive struggle for both teams. Starmount loaded the bases in the first and fourth frames, but stranded three runners each time. The Eagles threatened with a couple of runners in the bottom of the fourth but popped out twice to end the inning.
The Rams finally broke the ice in the fifth. Eugene Billips singled to lead off the inning, then Luke Shore bunted him into scoring position. A couple of passed balls eventually allowed Billips to come home for a 1-0 lead.
Wilkes Central pitcher Christian Triplett walked Dillon Dobson but he struck out Tanner Mathis. That brought Bray to the plate. After a couple of pitches, the Western Carolina commit smashed a ball into the centerfield bleachers to bring home two scores. It was Brayâ€™s fourth homer of the season, though his first since March 30.
Wilkes Central got one run back in the bottom of the sixth after an RBI single from Austin Shew. But Starmount answered with an insurance run in the top of the seventh. Dillon Dobson singled with one out, then moved to third after a throwing error on a pickoff play. Dobson eventually came home after a passed ball to make the score 4-1.
The bottom of the seventh had all the drama of the whole MVAC season seemingly rolled into one. Bray struck out the first two batters of the frame but then gave up a single to Centralâ€™s leadoff man, Jordan Carlton. Perry Lowe drew a walk, then Stefan Susi drew another free pass one to load up the bases.
That brought Koon â€“ the MVACâ€™s version of Albert Puljols to the plate. Even though one swing could have won the game, much like last Thursday, Bray said he wasnâ€™t shy about challenging Koon.
â€śI was just going to go after him,â€ť Bray said. â€śIf he hit it, he hit. If he didnâ€™t, he didnâ€™t. It felt good to get the out.â€ť
Koon hit it, and hit it hard. But the ball went up instead of out, and the Rams caught it to seal the victory.
Bray got the save, pitching the last two innings. Alex Barr â€“ who returned from injury a few weeks ago â€“ threw the first three innings before giving way to Tanner Mathis in the fourth. Mathis was credited with the win. The three pitchers combined held Wilkes Central to only three hits, though they did issue eight walks on the night.
McCann said it was his strategy going in to use all three pitchers. â€śI wasnâ€™t going to come out here and just spend one person,â€ť he said. â€śThat way we go into Friday and weâ€™ve got everybody. Since Iâ€™ve got two lefties and a righty, it wasnâ€™t hard to figure out â€“ lefty, righty, lefty.â€ť
Starmountâ€™s playoff march will start this Friday night against the No. 2 team from the Catawba Valley Conference. The Rams likely will be on the road as long as they are alive in the playoffs due to the MVAC having the lowest seeding priority in the 2A West bracket. But Starmount won multiple road games in the playoffs a year ago before bowing out of the 2A postseason.
â€śWeâ€™re road warriors all the way,â€ť McCann said. â€ś(Last year) it was all up I-40, so it looks like weâ€™re heading that way again. At least Iâ€™ll know where to stop and eat, right?â€ť
Wilkes Central, as the No. 1 seed from the MVAC, will host Carver in a first-round game Friday. If the Eagles win, theyâ€™ll most likely play West Stokes â€“ champions of the Northwest 1A/2A â€“ in a blockbuster round two match-up next week.
NOTEBOOK: Starmount put five players on the all-tournament team â€“ Bray, Dobson, Barr, Chase Thompson and tournament MVP Tanner Mathis. Wilkes Centralâ€™s all-tournament players included Koon, Austin Staley (the winning pitcher in the semifinals) and Austin Shew.
Charles Noble of West Wilkes and Mason Doub of Forbush made all-tournament as well.
The MVAC handed out all of its individual awards after Mondayâ€™s game. Wilkes Centralâ€™s Susi was named the leagueâ€™s player of the year. McCann and Forbush coach Taylor Rutledge shared coach of the year honors.
Susi, Centralâ€™s starting catcher, boasted a .607 batting average heading into Mondayâ€™s game. He hit safely in all but three games during the regular season.