With his team down 4-3 in the bottom of the fourth inning in Game 3 of the Class AAAAA State Final Series, bases loaded, two out, three-two count and fans from both sides of the stadium going berserk, Houston County centerfielder Hunt Smith stepped out of the batter’s box and looked like the Bear that ate the canary.
He stepped back in a hammered the next pitch high and deep over the scoreboard in right field. The grand slam, which he celebrated with a 10-foot-high bat flip, provided the margin of victory for Houston County, as the Bears held off an equally resilient Whitewater team en route to an 8-6 win that clinched the program’s first state title, Tuesday in Fayetteville.
“I told myself before the series that I can either get nervous or let the moment just soak in,” said the senior headed to play at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus. “I decided that I was going to have fun and not let the nerves get to me. In that situation, everybody going wild like that, I mean, that’s what you want.”
The win by Houston County continued the trend in a tightly-contested series in which the eventual winner had to stage a comeback from an early deficit. The teams split the first two games on Monday, with each team winning in its last at-bat. Host Whitewater of Fayetteville won Game 1, 8-6, on a game-winning three-run homer by senior Taylor Turner in the bottom of the seventh. In Game 2, Houston County staved off elimination, rallying from a 6-0 deficit to claim an 8-7 win in the bottom of the ninth inning on a bases loaded single by senior Justin Jones, the eventual Game 3 winner.
Whitewater jumped out to a 3-0 lead in Game 3, as senior Nick Fuerstenau hit a three-run homer in the top of the first inning. Though the series was held at Whitewater, Houston County won the coin toss to decide the game’s home team.
The Wildcats led 4-1 heading into the bottom of the fourth, and looked to escape the inning with their lead in tact after starting pitcher senior Jordan Holmes sandwiched a walk between a ground out and a strikeout. But Houston County junior Mark Lumsden started a two-out, six-run rally with an RBI double that got Holmes out of the game. The Bears then touched up senior reliever Johnathan Hendershot for two singles, and an intentional walk before Smith’s grand slam gave them a 7-4 lead.
But Whitewater wouldn’t go away. The Wildcats narrowed the gap to 7-6 with one out in the top of the fifth, after senior Caleb Norton tripled home two runs off Jones, who relieved starter Hunter Phillips in the fourth. Jones stranded Norton at third when he induced a ground out and a fly out to escape the inning without any more damage.
Houston County dodged another bullet in the top of the sixth when Wildcat senior Jacob Wilkinson doubled to deep center with one out. But Jones struck out freshman Tyler Doanes and got some help from Smith, who ran down junior Brandon Bell’s well-hit fly ball to deep right centerfield for the inning’s third out.
In the home half of the sixth, Bears junior left fielder Josh Profit supplied some cushion when he stayed back on a pitch and drove it the opposite way just over the wall in left centerfield to extend the Houston County lead to 8-6.
“We always talk about going backside,” said Profit, who made several nice plays on defense during the series. “I was looking to drive the baseball and he gave me a fastball that I was able to get a good swing on.”
Still, Whitewater put itself in position to tie the game in the top of the seventh when Fuerstenau reached on an error to lead off the inning, bringing the tying run to the plate in the person of Turner, who homered off of Jones to win Game 1. This time, Jones won the battle when he got Turner to hit into a double play. After walking the next batter, Jones snared a sharply hit comebacker by senior catcher Evan Mask and tossed it to first, setting off the championship celebration.
“I knew I didn’t want to throw [Turner] the same pitch as before,” said Jones, who has signed with Georgia State. “I got him to go after something low and away, and our defense turned it perfectly. It was a great series, just insane. Props to Whitewater. They are a great team. The people really got their money’s worth with this one.”
Whitewater head coach Rusty Bennett agreed. It was the sixth consecutive loss in the semifinals for the Wildcats.
“I told our kids they don’t have anything to hang their heads about. They just played in the best state championship series this year in Georgia,” Bennett said. “I’ve said all along that this year, [Class AAAAA] played the best baseball. Both sides played with so much heart and passion. It was a heck of a three-game series, but it’s tough to come up on this end of it. We return a lot of good players next season, so this bunch will be back.”
“I don’t have words to explain how this feels,” said an emotional Jason Brett, the Bears’ head coach. “This is just a great group of kids that always believed they could win no matter what. They weren’t going to be denied. I’m just so proud of them.”