PEMBROKE — The Fighting Scots drove down I-74 to Pembroke looking for one thing — redemption.
Purnell Swett stunned the undefeated Scots by handing them back-to-back losses to start conference play during the regular season. The Rams won the first meeting on March 21, 6-2 before handing the Scots a 2-1 loss three days later.
On Tuesday, the Scots atoned for those first two games beating the regular-season conference champions, in Pembroke, 4-3 with a freshman on the mound.
“Every win is great, but we didn’t play how we usually do both times we saw them — especially here,” said Scots head coach Chad Hill. “Anytime you beat an SEC opponent it’s great, but when you make it to the championship it makes it even sweeter.”
With starter Matthew Hyatt out with a broken wrist, the Scots continued to shake up their bullpen, starting junior Trey Armstrong. Armstrong lasted one and a half innings before Hill pulled him in favor of freshman Michael Johnson.
Purnell Swett had a beat on Armstrong from the start of the second inning. Purnell Swett’s McKenzie Strickland kicked things off with a double to center before Dakota Locklear zipped a ball down the third base line for the Rams first run. Back-to-back doubles to left by Ryan Graham and Bladen Strickland scored two more runs to give Purnell a 3-0 lead. A walk to Chandler Brayboy ended the evening for Armstrong on the mound.
Armstrong threw on his catcher’s gear and took his place behind the plate as Johnson came in to pitch his first varsity game. The freshman retired the side on an infield hit to third and a pop out to right. Over his three innings, Johnson shut the Rams out allowing zero runs off one hit with two walks and one strikeout. Johnson wasn’t blowing it past the Purnell batter, but he had great ball movement.
“We threw MJ in the fire and said go get ‘em and he competed like an upperclassmen, not like a freshman,” said Hill.
With Johnson keeping the Purnell offense in check, the Scots batters went to work chipping away at Rams starter Ethan Chavis. The Scots scored their first run in the top of the fourth inning off a single to center by senior Justin Ray. A single to shallow center by Tyler Faulk to put runners on with one out after a McKenzie White strikeout. Davon Ratliffe hit a chopper to Purnell’s second baseman and Faulk was tagged out at second, but Ray managed to get one back. Armstrong got hit by a pitch but a strikeout by Austin Norton ended the inning with runners on.
Five straight innings the Scots had multiple runners on base, something that paid off in the sixth inning. A single by White and a free trip to the bag by Faulk after getting pegged ended the night for Chavis. Purnell brought in their ace Ryan Graham to try and close out the game.
Ratliffe reached after being hit by a pitch to load the bases for the Scots with junior Tyler Snipes at the plate. Snipes, for the second game in a row, hit a critical double down the third baseline to score White from third to make it a 3-2 game. A strikeout by Norton was the first out of the inning before the Rams elected to intentionally walk Donta Green to load the bases.
An RBI infield fly out by third baseman Daly Marcano gave the Scots two outs with runners on every base. Senior Justin Bowers played it cards right and drew the walk to walk in a run and give the Scots a 4-3 lead. Ray then hit a line-drive that looked like it was going into right field, but Purnell’s second baseman made an outstanding play to end the inning.
“We kept talking that we were having great at bats, we were one foot away, one blooper and sometimes it comes back to haunt you, but once they put up that three spot we were able to hold them,” said Hill. “Our guys kept competing, our coaching staff is extremely proud of how they competed. It’s easy being down 3-0 to just roll over to someone that’s beat you twice this year.”
A walk to start the bottom of the sixth inning ended Johnson’s outing and Bowers took the mound — striking out the first four batters he saw. The bottom of the seventh inning with one out, Brayboy hit a high infield pop fly that Norton misjudged and dropped. The Scots first baseman redeemed himself the following play getting the second out on an out-of-bound pop fly by Chay Locklear. A ground out by Purnell’s Cal Hunt ended the game.
The Scots ran out of the dugout to celebrate advancing to the Southeastern conference championship where they will face Pinecrest tonight in Southern Pines at 7 p.m.
Hill has an unconventional method of getting his game plan together for Friday’s championship — laundry.
“I hope the dog is awake when I get home because if not I’m going to wake the puppy up and we’re going to do some more laundry,” he said.
Amber Hatten can be reached at 910-506-3170.