Northwestern baseball started the season No. 1 and now has the chance to finish the 2017 campaign in the same spot.
The Trojans dropped Boiling Springs 4-2 Wednesday night to advance to the 5A state title series, the school’s first championship appearance since 2014 when it lost to Sumter. The Trojans (28-4) will travel Saturday to face River Bluff, which beat Lexington twice on Wednesday night in the Lower State championship.
“At the beginning of the year they thought they didn’t have to do the work to stay there,” said Northwestern coach Mitch Walters. “I told them it was just a vote that we had the potential.”
Walters praised his senior class, nine guys that created a culture within the program that policed itself.
“This is an awesome group of young men,” said the veteran coach. “But we ain’t done anything yet. We’ve just got there.”
Blessed with four college-committed pitching arms, junior Rob Hughes got the chance to lead his team into the state finals Wednesday. It’s been a common topic of conversation among the players for a while now.
“August, August,” said Hughes. “All we’ve been saying in the weight room is “state” everyday. Look now at all the hard work we put in and how it’s come through and how it’s worked out, it’s pretty amazing.”
Boiling Springs (26-5) never overcame a slow start that saw it fall behind 3-0. Trailing 4-2, the Bulldogs got the leadoff batter on base in the top of the sixth, but Hughes elicited a slickly turned double play by Will Gardiner and Cameron Reeves, and four of the final five Boiling Springs batters struck out, snuffing out any potential rally by the visitors.
Northwestern built a three-run cushion in the first three frames thanks in part to some antsy Bulldogs batters. Hughes needed just 16 pitches to get through the first three frames, duping seven of the visitors’ first nine batters into ground ball-outs.
Hughes, the Furman commit, said Boiling Springs batters watched almost all of his sliders and curveballs and swung at seemingly every fastball.
“They were swinging early in the count so I was just throwing fastballs, trying to spot them, which didn’t really work,” said Hughes. “But they kind of helped me out a bit. They were pretty eager to swing.”
As usual, Northwestern got production from throughout its roster. Leadoff man Jordan Starkes stretched a single into a double in the game’s opening at-bat, a tone-setting play for the junior. He was 2-for-3, with two Boiling Springs errors helping him touch all four bags in the top of the third inning on an another aggressive base-running move.
Two of the aforementioned seniors, Brandon Ashley and Will Hagood, came through with run-scoring hits. Ashley golfed a second inning offering over the left field fence for a 2-0 lead; he was the bullpen catcher on the 2014 team that lost in the 4A finals to Sumter. And Hagood lofted a perfect sacrifice fly into the right corner to make it 4-2 in the bottom of the fifth.
Hughes allowed just five hits and two runs in six innings.
“He throws three pitches for strikes and our mentality was time him up on deck, be ready for the fastball,” said Boiling Springs coach Jeff Lipscomb. “We’d foul it off, he’d throw it by us or we’d take it, then he’d throw his breaking pitches or change-up off-speed. He’s a quality pitcher, this is a quality team. I tip my hat to Northwestern.”
Hughes made way for Wesley Sweatt, who struck out the side in the seventh to save his third game of the playoffs for the Trojans.
“He got real nasty and that’s what we want him to do,” Walters said.
Northwestern will open the state championship series on the road Saturday before returning home for the second game next Tuesday. Looking on at the Trojans celebrations from right field, Lipscomb liked their chances of winning the whole thing.
“They’re very capable of winning the trophy this year,” he said. “They hit it better than we thought they would, just enough. But their arms are unbelievably good. I look for them to win this thing, Mitch does a great job with them.”