BUFORD — Buford made one critical error early in the deciding third game of its state semifinal series against Cartersville, and it proved too much to overcome.
With the Wolves enjoying a three-run lead in the bottom of the second, Cartersville’s Riley Richards reached on a fielding error by Buford’s first baseman, opening the door for a five-run inning and 7-5 victory to close out the best-of-three series at Gerald McQuaig Field in Buford.
With the loss, Buford’s season is finished with a 30-5 mark, while Cartersville looks to defend its Class AAA state title with a best-of-three championship series against Blessed Trinity starting on Saturday in Cartersville.
The Wolves started the game fast with a two-out, two-run double to the left-field gap from Nick Wilhite in the visitor’s portion of the first inning, then tacked on another run in the second when Austin Wilhite grounded out to drive in Hunter Puckett from third.
However, the Purple Hurricanes got the most out of the second-inning rally after Richards reached on an error. Cartersville then loaded the bases after its first run scored on a single from Mark Quattlebaum.
“You got to tip your hat to Cartersville for playing a good game,” Buford coach Tony Wolfe said. “I feel like we competed and battled hard all night, but they were just a little bit better.
“Even when we had the lead early, we knew they weren’t going to die.”
Cartersville forced the third game after splitting Monday’s doubleheader to open the series at home. The Wolves won the first game 4-0 but lost the nightcap 7-2.
“As disappointed as we are to lose this one, I’m very proud of these guys,” Wolfe added. “To make the final four and a 30-win season is nothing to hang your heads about.”
With the bases loaded for Cartersville for the second time in the second inning, Brent Arnold had its biggest hit of the night, a three-run triple to center field. With Wolves center fielder Patrick Burnette charging hard toward the infield trying to make a diving catch, he missed by just inches, and the ball rolled toward the fence to clear the bases, putting the Purple Hurricanes up 5-3.
Trailing by three runs in the top of the fourth, Austin Wilhite got the Wolves back in the game with a two-run homer. Cartersville managed to get one of the runs back in the bottom half of the inning after Quattlebaum doubled to the left-field gap to open the inning and scored on Lane Wilson’s sacrifice fly.
Wolfe felt good with Kevin Coulter on the mound as his starter for the deciding Game 3, but was chased with the five-spot Cartersville put up in the second inning.
Still, the relievers for the Wolves fared well against a tough Purple Hurricanes batting order. Keyton Gibson threw 2 2/3 innings of relief with two runs and three hits allowed. Griffin Jolliff finished up the game on the mound for Buford, retiring five of the six batters he faced over the fifth and sixth innings.
The Purple Hurricanes also made three huge defensive plays to hold on to the lead after the five-run rally in the second. Austin Upshaw was robbed of a third-inning homer for the Wolves when Cartersville center fielder Riley Richards jumped above the fence and brought down the ball.
In the next inning, Wolves catcher Joey Bart had a potential single taken away when Purple Hurricanes shortstop Clifton Dempsey snagged a grounder deep in the hole and recovered in time for the throw to first for the out.
Earlier in the game, Cartersville first baseman David Darnell dove for a stop with an unassisted putout at first off the bat of Buford’s Jake Higginbotham.
Buford’s first-inning scoring started with Higginbotham’s one-out single to left field, then Austin Upshaw’s two-out single to put runners on the corners. In the seventh, trailing by two runs, Austin Wilhite had a one-out infield single to deep short stop that didn’t draw a throw. Cartersville’s Garrett Rutledge retired the final two he faced with a strikeout of Higginbotham and Bart’s fly ball out to foul territory along right field to finish the victory.
Quattlebaum was Cartersville’s leading hitter with hits in all three plate appearances.