After piling up a program-record 32 wins this season, the North Hall Trojans need just two more victories to call themselves state champions.
Senior left-handers Colton Duttweiler and Preston Graham combined to hold top-ranked Blessed Trinity to two hits over seven shutout innings, and junior catcher Stephen Murray banged a two-run home run off the scoreboard in the sixth inning to help the No. 4-ranked Trojans beat the No. 1 Titans 4-0 in deciding Game 3 of the Class AAA baseball state semifinals on Tuesday at Jody Davis Field in Gainesville.
The Trojans (32-4) won the series 2-1 and will now host Cartersville (28-7) in another best-of-three series to determine the state champion, beginning with a doubleheader on Saturday (game time TBD) in Gainesville. Game 3, if necessary, would be played Monday.
Coming into the 2013 season, North Hall had never advanced beyond the second round of the state playoffs since the school opened in 1957. The Trojans now have the chance to end their historic run with the ultimate prize, and they remained focused on it following Tuesday’s win.
“It’s really hard to put into words how special this is for this program, but we are not satisfied,” Trojans coach Trent Mongero said. “We’ve got more work to do. We’re going to enjoy this moment and gear up for Saturday.”
Much like Game 1, which the Trojans won 1-0, Game 3 was a pitchers duel heading into the bottom of the fifth inning.
Murray got the offense started with a much more modest hit than his home run — a single to right-center off Titans (27-6) starting pitcher Keenan Innis — and Graham followed with a single to deep right that moved pinch runner Micah Strickland to third. Strickland broke for home on a wild pitch and slid in safely when Innis couldn’t field the throw from catcher C.J. Brazil.
North tacked on an insurance run in the sixth when Griffin Olson was hit by a pitch, advanced to second on a sac bunt by Duttweiler, and scored when shortstop John Davis fielded an infield grounder off the bat of Adam Kelly and sailed the throw to first high and out of the field of play.
Two batters later, Murray sent the first pitch he saw over the left field fence for his first home run as a varsity player.
“Coach Mongero walked over to me and said, ‘You know you’re going to get a first pitch fastball, and I want you to jump all over it,’” Murray said. “Coach (Gerry) Pope just told me to keep my hands inside the ball all because that’s what we’ve been working on all week, and I did both.
“All I know is that I’m more proud of my team than I am myself, personally. I’m just happy (my hits) came at this time.”
Graham retired Blessed Trinity in order in the seventh with the help of a running catch by sophomore left fielder Lincoln Hewett in deep left-center.
Hewett’s play capped an impressive defensive performance by the Trojans outfielders. Graham got it started in right field when he threw out Bronco O’Brien at home plate to save a run in the second inning.
Graham then replaced Duttweiler on the mound in the fifth with runners on first and second and only one out, and Hewett gave him an assist by throwing out Cody Roberts at the plate following a ball hit to left by Jack Dunn. McCoy Savage also got in on the defensive highlight reel with a sliding catch near the right field line in the sixth.
“These guys take tremendous pride in their defense,” Mongero said. “We work on it starting in the fall every day.
“We probably hadn’t had three plays at the plate all year and we had two in one game for outs. Sliding catches, running catches — that’s one heck of a job by our outfielders.”
Mongero played a little defense of his own during the game against Blessed Trinity first baseman Nathaniel Maggio, who erupted for three home runs and six RBIs in the Titans’ 8-5 victory in Game 2 on Monday. Maggio came to the plate three times in Game 3, and each time Mongero called for an intentional walk.
“As the series goes on you learn more about each player, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that he’s a guy that can hurt you, not just with a massive home run but (also) with a mis-hit home run,” Mongero said. “As tight as this game was, I wasn’t going to give that young man an opportunity to beat us. That’s a tribute to him and his abilities.”
With Maggio’s bat taken out of his hands, Duttweiler allowed only one hit and struck out three over 4 1/3 innings.
Duttweiler said a return to the friendly confines of Jody Davis Field helped keep him calm on the mound following his struggles in two state quarterfinals appearances against Pierce County in Blackshear.
“(It’s comforting) just knowing that I can look up in the stands and see everyone wearing green, white and black and knowing they’re pulling for us,” Duttweiler said.
“Warming up I was pretty nervous, but when I got out on the mound and saw everybody, I knew that I had to do what I had to do.”
Graham, who tossed a one-hit shutout to outduel South Carolina signee Reed Scott in Game 1, had enough left in the tank to finish off the series with 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief and punch North Hall’s ticket to the title series.
“All the work that we’ve done all year just started falling into place,” Graham said. “I know the defense I have behind me and I have total faith in them. I threw strikes and they made the plays for me.”