Western Harnett’s historic playoff run ended in the third round of the NCHSAA 3-A state baseball playoffs Tuesday, as the Eagles fell 2-1 to visiting Tri-County Six 3-A Conference mate Union Pines.
“We made a couple of mistakes early that hurt us,” said Western coach Dalton Hardee. “We never really got the bats going. We got runners on base and couldn’t ever really get the big hit that we needed.”
The game was the fourth meeting between the Eagles (14-15) and the Vikings (18-9) this season. Western had won the previous three meetings.
Junior Bradley Wilson pitched the complete game for Western, giving up no earned runs on eight hits and no walks, with eight strikeouts.
“He’s been doing it all year, getting after it on the mound,” Hardee said. “He knows where he is and that he’s got to get hitters out quick and does a good job of that.”
Starter Tanner Freeland was the winning pitcher for Union Pines, yielding one earned run on three hits and six walks, with three strikeouts across five and one-third innings. Trent Marion pitched one and two-thirds innings, giving up no runs on one hit, with two strikeouts.
Andrew Kelly had two hits, including a double, Collin Welch had one hit and one RBI and Kaleb Denkins had one hit and one run scored for the Eagles.
“We struggled tonight getting runners on base early,” Hardee said. “We got a lot of runners on base with two outs and that’s tough. It puts hitters in tough situations.”
Ryder Giles and Ethan McKay each had two hits and one run scored to lead the Vikings and Marion, Alex Mauldin, Logan Briggs, and Caleb Long had one hit apiece.
Western grabbed an early lead in the bottom of the first inning when Denkins singled, advanced when Wilson drew a walk and scored on a base hit from Welch.
McKay had a hit in the top of the third, advanced on a base hit from Giles and scored when Chandler Barber reached on an error that also advanced Giles to third. Giles then scored on the throw to first on a dropped third strike during a Mauldin at-bat.
The Vikings had another opportunity in the fifth, loading the bases with one out. But Kelly caught a line drive and tagged first for an unassisted double play to retire the side.
Union Pines returned the favor in the sixth inning when Western loaded the bases with one out, but a double play ended the inning.
Kelly doubled with two out in the bottom of the seventh to put the potential tying run in scoring position, but a strikeout ended the game.
Despite the loss, the playoff run was a historical one for the Eagles, as they reached the third round of the state playoffs for the first time in school history.
“The kids have battled,” Hardee said. “They beat D.H. Conley (in the second round), a huge program in the state of North Carolina. They made a good run in the playoffs and battled tonight. They never give up and its hard to find teams like that.”
The loss ends the high school careers of five seniors: Devonte Sanders, Josh Carter, Andrew Kelly, Jordi Sancho and John Paul Taylor.
“Our seniors have been great leaders,” Hardee said. “Andrew Kelly, I cannot say enough about him leading this team. He’s made my job very, very easy. They’ve shown our kids how to work. Even the seniors who have graduated have shown these kids how to work and that hard work will pay off. I think this season really showed how our work’s paid off.”
The Eagles will have a senior-laden team next season and will get back some players who were injured this season as they look to build on what they achieved this year.
“We’ve just got to keep getting better,” Hardee said. “We’re going to have a couple of guys coming back from injury that we missed out on this year. It’s going to be a heavy senior class. We’ve got to get some arms in there, because we’ve used pretty much two guys (Wilson and Kelly) the last few weeks of the year. Just keep working and we’re going to be OK.”