Until Saturday, the Buford Wolves had steam rolled through the Class AA state playoffs without a loss, sweeping the first four series over Fannin County, defending state champions Calhoun, Pierce County and Appling County.
Then, they hit a brick wall in Game 1 of the finals against Pike County. Kody Adams pitched a gem. Chris Long hit two monstrous home runs for five RBIs. The Pirates won 10-3.
The Pirates were battle-tested heading into this series, having played and won three-game series in both the quarterfinals against Blessed Trinity and the semifinals against Lovett. Buford could have easily become discouraged, having dropped the championship opener at home to Pike, but it didn’t.
And that’s a good sign for the Wolves.
“That was a question,” Buford coach Tony Wolfe said after being asked if his team would become rattled by a playoff loss. “Having lost Game 1 and responding as well as we did in Game 2, I think our kids answered a lot of questions about that and it will be fun to play a winner-take-all game on Monday.”
The third and final game is today at 4 p.m., with the Wolves sending Josh Heddinger to face the Pirates’ Lance Shelton.
Though some Wolves admitted Game 1 rattled the team, they seemed to easily put all that behind them in Game 2 with a convincing 14-4 mercy rule win.
“We were kind of down after it happened,” Game 2 winning pitcher Jake Burnette said. “But we came out here and started warming up, me and a couple seniors spoke up and said this could be the last game, so if we lose here we’re done. We’re not going out like this. We’re going to win and make them play us on Monday.
“We got them ready to play and we’re excited to play again.”
The Pirates are too. Call it cockiness or confidence, but some Pike County players had strong words for how they think they’ll fare against Buford today.
“We’re going to come back out here on Monday and give it to ‘em,” Long said.
Apparently, the Pirates aren’t too fazed by the prospect of facing Heddinger, a Georgia Tech signee.
“I feel very good about our chances,” said Adams, winner of Game 1. “We’ve played two straight series with a Game 3 and they haven’t played one yet. I mean, they’re throwing another righty — we can hit a righty.”
Buford has the fire to match the Pirates’ intensity. Case in point is center fielder Adam Burnette. He plays with an edge and has developed a reputation for getting under the opponent’s skin with both his talk and play. His gestures following Wolves scoring outbursts in Game 2 earned him boos from the Pike County stands during his fourth inning at-bat.
He responded with a long home run. He also continued his trot past home plate a couple of steps toward the Pirates’ crowd to wag his tongue and shake his head.
“I hate to say it, but I live for that stuff,” Hampton said. “It pumps me up. I love the excitement, I love the atmosphere and I think that gives me energy and motivation to do good.
“I heard them booing, so I thought I’d give them something to cheer for. (After the home run) it was like I was flying running the bases. It was a great feeling.”
Hampton also likes the Wolves’ chances, much in the way the Pirates like theirs.
“I think if we play like we did in Game 2 we have a shot,” he said. “We have to play with no fear. It’s (a one-game series) right now. This is the last game. We came in here knowing there was going to be a really good chance this would go three games, so I don’t think we’re under pressure or anything. We’re calm and I think we’ll do good.”
Pike’s big win in the first game was canceled out by Buford’s even bigger response. The series is now reset, and neither team seems willing to back down. And neither team seems intimidated.
The stage is set for what should be an exciting finale to the 2011 baseball season.
Adam Krohn is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at Twitter.com/gtimesakrohn.