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Buford sweeps Whitewater to clinch Class AAAA baseball state championship
Buford pitcher Connor Bennett reacts after getting a game-ending strikeout against Whitewater in Game 1 of the Class AAAA state championship series on Saturday in Fayetteville. Buford defeated Whitewater 5-0 in Game 1. - photo by Jared Putnam

FAYETTEVILLE — Buford baseball coach Tony Wolfe got the icewater bath when it was all said and done Saturday night. At the same time, Wolves catcher Joey Bart was crouched down, holding tight to his team's shiny state championship trophy.

It was an emotional moment for players and coaches alike.

“This means so much to me, it’s almost indescribable,” said Bart, who was big all day for the Wolves in a two-game sweep of Whitewater.

Top-ranked Buford (34-4) scored three runs in the seventh inning of the opener to win 5-0 in the best-of-three series for the Class AAAA title. Then in the nightcap, the Wolves came from behind with three runs to win 3-1 against No. 3 Whitewater (29-7).

It marks Buford’s first state championship in baseball since 2011, and third in program history.

The Wolves finished the season on a 24-game winning streak, including a perfect 10-0 mark in the playoffs. 

“All my joy is for the guys on this team,” said Wolfe. “It’s just such a blessing for them to be able to live this dream.”

Wolfe said his job was easy with a deep and talented pitching staff. He threw Clemson-bound lefty Jake Higginbotham in Game 1. The left-hander recorded 10 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings, before giving way to Connor Bennett in relief, even though he typically pitches in the starting role.

According to Wolfe, Higginbotham finished his career with a new school-record 30 wins over four years, and didn’t allow a run in postseason play from 2013-15.

“He was just the same old Jake again,” said Wolfe. “Just an outstanding job throwing the ball.”

In the second game, Wolfe elected to start Kevin Coulter (4 2/3 innings pitched, five hits), before Georgia Tech-bound right-hander Keyton Gibson came in to record the save.

“With pitchers as talented as we have, it’s easy to map it out,” said Wolfe, who said he’s now been a part of 12 state championships at Buford between baseball, softball and football.

Buford’s Higginbotham was also swept away with emotion, wiping away tears as he was greeted with countless hugs and handshakes when the series was finished in Fayette County.

“This state championship means the world to me,” said Higginbotham, who is projected as a potentially high selection in the MLB draft next month. “I’ve never felt camaraderie on a team like this before.

“It’s just unbelievable.”

Gibson stared down the most intimidating of situations late in Game 2. Clinging to a 3-1 lead, he got Whitewater’s No. 3 hitter Brandon Bell to strike out swinging, with two runners in scoring position.

The inning was extended to let Bell bat, after a grounder to Freeman Edwards resulted in a throwing error to first base. Tyler Danes reached on an error, and then stole second to put two Wildcats runners in scoring position, with the potential winning run coming to the plate in the form of Bell.

Gibson recorded the final out on a strikeout, then the pile of Buford players formed, celebrating just in front of the plate.

“These are my brothers on this team,” said Higginbotham. “I’ll always remember this moment.”

GAME 1, BUFORD 5, WHITEWATER 0: Bennett’s two pitches of relief work in the sixth inning helped ensure Higginbotham’s 10-strikeout starting effort didn’t go to waste.

Leading 2-0 and with Whitewater batting with the bases full and two outs, Wolfe pulled Higginbotham after 100 pitches over 5 2/3 innings, in favor of Bennett.

That decision proved to be the difference in the game, and led to a clean sweep of the series.

On the second throw to Avery Roth, Bennett was able to draw a lazy fly ball behind the plate, which Bart recorded for the final out.

In the top of the seventh, Buford put the game away with an RBI single by Griffin Jolliff and two-run double by Caleb Moore with the bases loaded, to go up 5-0. The Wolves drove in the three runs against Wildcats reliever Jacob Henley, their third new pitcher of the inning.

In the fourth, Higginbotham got around two walks he allowed to open the inning.

With Whitewater trying to rally from a 2-0 deficit, Higginbotham got Jabari Richards to strike out on an offer at a bunt attempt for the first out. Then with a 3-2 count against Miles Jones with one out, Higginbotham threw a sharp breaking ball that the Wildcats’ hitter watched for the third strike. Higginbotham got out of the inning with a high fastball, which Avery Roth chased for strike three.

Buford scored first in the third inning with RBI singles by Bart and Nick Wilhite.

The Wolves were aided early in the inning when a ground ball off the bat of Dillon Lancaster was momentarily bobbled by Wildcats shortstop Tyler Burdette, and he was only able to get the lead runner at second base out on the double-play try.

In the bottom of the first inning, Buford was able to keep Whitewater off the board. Brandon Marsh was able to recover after stumbling, nearly falling, in right field to match the catch on the fly ball by Brandon Bell for the second out.  

Bennett earned the save, throwing 1 1/3 innings of relief. Whitewater loaded the bases in the seventh inning with two outs, but Bennett got J.D. Norred swinging for the final out of the first game.

Game 2, BUFORD 3, WHITEWATER 1: Nick Wilhite might have changed the momentum of the nightcap with his play in the top of the second. Buford’s center fielder came up firing on Tyler Burdette’s single up the middle. With a perfect throw home, Bart applied the tag on Avery Roth at the plate, to keep the Wildcats’ lead at 1-0.

“Nick’s a big-time player,” said Bart, who finished the day with two doubles and a pair of singles.

Wolfe said Bart’s play behind the plate never changes. The state championship series certainly was the same, with Buford’s catcher steady on also digging breaking pitches out of the dirt.

“I just can’t say enough about Joey Bart means to us behind the plate,” said Wolfe. “He probably saves us two runs a game with the way he blocks balls.

“And no one ever tries to steal on him.”

The Wolves tied it up at 1-1 in the bottom of the second with Ian Jenkins’ first double of the night. Buford extended its lead to 3-1 in the third with run-scoring hits by Brandon Marsh and Bart’s double down the first-base line.

Jenkins also doubled to the right-field fence in the fourth inning. Buford left the bases loaded when Whitewater sent in reliever Ben Hughlon to record the final two outs.

After a shaky start, Coulter settled down to retire Whitewater’s offense in order during the fourth and fifth innings. He threw 4 1/3 innings, allowing six hits and the lone run.

With Gibson on in relief for Buford in the fifth, he got Whitewater’s Nick Fink swinging for the third strike with two outs already recorded. Even though the ball was in the dirt, Bart picked up the ball and tagged the plate for the out.

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