Comeback earns Eagles’ first state baseball title
by Staff Writer
SouthLake Christian Academy’s baseball team saved its best for last to win the 2011 N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 2A championship at Rocky Mount Academy on May 21.
The Eagles dropped the first game of the best-of-three championship series on May 20, losing 5-0 to defending state champion Kerr-Vance Academy. But the following day, SouthLake Christian returned to the field to decisively sweep the next two contests, 11-1 and 10-0, and claim its first baseball title in school history.
“I’m just so proud of the boys winning in the fashion that they did,” said SouthLake Christian coach Rich Landis. “Going down 5-0 in the first game against a dominant pitcher like Tyler Bolton and then facing him again the next day and treating our at-bats differently than the night before to get him pulled early was impressive. It didn’t matter who Kerr-Vance put in after that. We just knew we were going to hit them.”
Bolton and Game 1 starter John Allen, the Spartans’ pair of towering aces who both have committed to East Carolina University, combined to hold the Eagles to just two hits. Bolton returned the next day to face the Eagles with seven innings left on the series’ 10-inning rule for pitchers, but SouthLake Christian’s Jared Fortune greeted him in the first inning with a two-run home run. The Eagles then ended Bolton’s day with a four-run fourth inning. Five more SouthLake Christian runs in the fifth inning invoked the 10-run mercy rule.
SouthLake Christian’s 21 runs in the final two games weren’t a surprise. The Eagles relied on one of the most-feared offenses in private-school’s 2A level to build a record of 28-5-1 this spring, which set a school record for victories in a season. The top seven hitters in the SouthLake Christian batting order combined for 65 home runs and 310 runs this season. Senior Palmer Coleman led the Eagles with 14 homers and 60 RBIs, while senior Nathan Sharp scored a team-high 57 runs.
Landis described the Eagles’ veteran offense as “a once-in-a-decade situation.” The emergence of Palmer, along with another impressive season from leading hitter Fortune (.467 batting average) and returning starters Sam Remick, Travis Hallman and Sharp, made SouthLake tough to stop at the plate. Landis said there wasn’t an easy out in the lineup. Cameron Travis, Bobby Troutman, Hough mid-season transfer Connor Duncan and Lucas Verville chipped in key hits throughout the season. All but Duncan were seniors.
Still, there were whispers that SouthLake Christian couldn’t rely on its explosive offense the entire season. Skeptics said when the bats go cold, the Eagles pitching staff wasn’t strong enough for a championship run.
But the Eagles’ silenced the naysayers in the championship series. Fortune came up big for SouthLake Christian on the mound, holding the Spartans to just one run in 10 innings of work and striking out 15 batters. He threw 145 pitches to earn both wins on Saturday and improve his individual record to 10-0 this season. Sharp struck out four of the final six batters in Game 3 to seal the championship.
“All our guys played well, but Jared was just in his own world,” said Landis, who added that the five-inning Game 2 preserved Fortune enough to allow him to pitch five innings in Game 3. “From his first pitch of the day to the last pitch, he didn’t lose any velocity.”
Fortune was named to the NCISAA’s 2A All-State team, as were teammates Remick and Sharp. All three players were All-Metrolina Athletic Conference selections this spring, along with Hallman and Coleman.
Three days after the Eagles claimed the state championship hardware, Landis was still enjoying the moment. With nine seniors on the roster set to graduate, he wanted to cherish every memory from the stunning comeback in Rocky Mount. After all, it could be a while before he sees another SouthLake Christian baseball team as good as the 2011 squad.
“I never won a state title as a player or in my 30 years coaching,” said Landis. “It was a great experience. And since that time, it has gotten sweeter by the day.”