SPORTS RECAP: Raiders get redemption in win over Perry to capture region 4-AAAA championship

The Courier Herald – Tuesday, April 27, 2021

    A late collapse cost West Laurens its first game against Perry on April 7, when the Panthers clawed their way back from seven runs down to grab a 10-9 win at home in the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable. Friday night, roughly three weeks later, the teams met again in Dexter in a matchup featuring an equally dramatic finish and even higher stakes, with the region championship, and – in the case of the Raiders – redemption, on the line. 
   Tyler Newhouse, who hit the walk-off single to complete Perry's eight-run comeback effort earlier in the month, walked off again in this one at the Raider Sports Complex… after being caught stealing for the last out of the game. 
   A dead-on throw from the plate by West Laurens catcher Ethan Hart nailed the junior on his attempt to swipe second as West Laurens held off an unnerving seventh-inning rally by the Panthers to wipe its slate clean with a 4-2 victory, and capture the region 4-AAAA crown. The title is a fifth in program history, and the Raiders' first since the last of four in a row in 2018. 
   Friday's meeting in baseball was the latest installment in a rivalry that's saved some of its most action-packed and fiery chapters for the last two years, in which the schools have met three times with a region title up for grabs. Consequently, each of those games – 2019 in football, 2021 in boys soccer and Friday's showdown in baseball – wound up going the direction of the Raiders. 
   West Laurens players and coaches, for this one in particular, came in with fresh memories – if not wounds – from the earlier loss, and a feeling of having both a score to settle and a wrong to right. 
   "I can't say enough about these guys," said West Laurens head coach Josh Carter. "To take a loss like that being up 9-2 in the fifth, up 9-4 in the sixth, and then it unraveling amongst your eyes, that’s a tough pill for these guys to swallow. But they were ready tonight." 
   The Raiders led wire to wire, building off three runs in the first inning to take a 4-1 lead into the last-chance seventh. But they had to know the Panthers wouldn't go away without making some noise again. Perry, on two hits and a free pass, brought a run around to score and threatened to tie or take the lead. 
   "As a coach, you always get that bad feeling in your gut when you start to see Déjà vu," Carter said. 
   Nine-hole hitter Christian Fletcher popped up to center on his first pitch from West Laurens pitcher Eli Floyd for the initial out, but the top of the order for the Panthers didn't go near as quietly. Georgia commit Tanner Knowles, in the next at-bat, took his first offering the other way into right for a line-drive base hit. Tristen Freis flew out to left for a second out, but the Panthers cut the deficit down to two on a big swing by the next man up. 
   Lane Rucker ripped a ball deep to left field corner, where the Raiders' Greyson Clark got the ball in glove, but lost it as he crashed into the fence. Rucker stretched the play into a triple that reduced the West Laurens lead to 4-2, and brought up the tying run in Newhouse, who got plunked in the helmet by an up-and-in pitch to reach base and get the go-ahead run to the plate. 
   Carter, hoping to break up Perry's building momentum, elected for a pitching change and went to his pen for senior Gavin White, who needed just one pitch and the Panthers' untimely bid for a steal of second, to record the third out. 
   Newhouse didn't get a great jump on the attempt and also started his headfirst slide several feet too early, causing him to decelerate on his final approach to the bag and likely costing him a chance to beat the play. Hart fired the throw down off White's fastball, and William Kellam applied the tag. The umpire, who had called Panthers safe at second on two equally close plays early in the game, this time ruled the runner out. And the postgame mayhem ensued. 
   West Laurens players and coaches erupted onto the field and piled up to the left of the pitcher's mound as disbelieving Panthers looked on in confoundment. A handful of Perry coaches also stormed from the dugout to argue the call, and at least one was ejected as a result, ruling him out for the Panthers' playoff opener Wednesday against Cairo. 
   Hart, who had only earlier in the week returned from more than a month's rehab of an ankle injury sustained beating out a play at first against Rutland in March, proved to be the biggest difference-maker for the Raiders in the win. His loss, along with that of Bradley Wilson – whose arm made him go-to option behind the plate in games such as these before an elbow injury set him down in late March as well – left West Laurens paper thin in its depth behind the plate. And it showed in a the prior Perry matchup where, even on a solid day for backup Janson Meeks, the Panthers stole seven bags and picked up close to half a dozen more on wild pitches and errors. 
   The Panthers, as a team, had swiped 92 leading into Friday's season finale, and relied on that aggression again to move up what few runners they got on throughout Friday's game. They had already picked three cleanly, and with two outs, went to the well again with Newhouse on the most gutsy try of the night.    
   “All year I’ve been working on my throw downs," said Hart. "At Bleckley (Wednesday), I threw two people out, and it was kind of a confidence boost. And then when I threw the one guy out but it wasn’t called out, I knew I had to stay in my head and stay within myself, and I just can’t thank God enough for giving me the opportunity, and I just let it fly.” 
   The circumstances on the play aligned beautifully for the Raiders, in part because they had foreseen the possibility of a steal in advance, and were ready with great execution and an excellent throw.
   "I got with my coaching staff, and we thought he was gonna try to steal there to try to move him up into scoring position," Carter said. "I can’t say enough about Ethan Hart. This is his third game back after about a month and a half being hurt. We talked it (over) on the mound, and Ethan said, 'I got you,' and he threw one down on a seed.” 
   Tyler Franks got the West Laurens win on the mound, turning in a two-hit performance over six innings – his longest outing of the entire season – while giving up just one run, striking out four and pitching around five walks. 
   "When you have a guy like Tyler, you’ve gotta go back to him," Carter said, noting Franks' bounce-back from a couple of rough midseason starts to deliver a clutch performance in this one, the team's biggest game all year. "He was dominant today. I would say he threw 97-98 percent fastballs today. And a lot of them, as much as his ball runs, I was calling them just right down the middle. He’s just a competitor. Tyler’s got it, he’s got it in his veins as a competitor. And he put the team on his back today, and he did exactly what we needed him to do, and give us several strong innings." 
   Franks started the game on a confident note, striking out the side around a walk of Tristen Freis in the first inning, before working around a Perry hit and a free pass issued in both the second and fourth innings to strand runners. 
   The lone Panther run came in the fifth, after runners advanced on a wild pitch following back-to-back walks. Freis scored Fletcher from third with a sacrifice fly that cut the West Laurens lead to 3-1, although the Raiders got a second out and expunged a potential second run when Clark, from left field, hit his cutoff man and caught Knowles in a rundown between second and third. Matthew Mebane threw to Colton Scott, who tagged him out to clear off the bases. 
   A tiring Franks worked into the sixth, with his pitch count exceeding 100, and issued a two-out walk to Brayden Long before getting a groundout to end the inning. Floyd and White combined to shut the door in the seventh, allowing two hits and just one run. The staff, as a whole, held Perry to only four hits. 
   Franks, who was honored on senior night along with teammates Mebane, Scott, Clark, Bradley Wilson, Carson Estep, White and Trace Woodard prior to the game, said the loss to Perry was one he and his teammates had taken personally, and used as motivation to play Friday's game with some "grit" and "a chip on your shoulder." 
   “We had a bad taste in our mouth," he said. 
   Members of the group who played at West Laurens during its last region championship season were freshmen and mostly members of the junior varsity squad, or in Franks' case, hurt for the bulk of the year and without a true sense of ownership in the 2018 crown the team took home under head coach Brian Brown. Winning this one, in their last opportunity as seniors, brought a special sense of satisfaction. 
   "The guys I've played baseball with on varsity, it's our first region title," Franks said. "This is definitely going to be the most memorable high school game I’ve ever played." 
   The region championship trophy, delivered to the field by Laurens County Schools athletic director Jeff Clayton and WLHS athletic coordinator Mike Thompson, made its way out to the team as the postgame celebration spilled into left field. The team rallied around the raised prize, then posed for a group photo before it began circulating among players for individual pictures with the parents and friends who joined the celebration.
   The accomplishment, to atone for an earlier shortfall, break a three-year drought and follow a 2020 season that was robbed by a pandemic, had different qualities of a comeback story for nearly everyone involved. 
   “For us juniors, when we were in middle school our eighth grade year, we lost the region championship," Hart said. "So it’s a great feeling to come back and to especially be a part of this team. I can’t thank God enough for allowing us to be here." 
   West Laurens grabbed its early lead as the game threatened to come unraveled on Perry starting pitcher Ben McDow in the bottom of the first inning. 
   A hard-hit liner to short by Kellam that shot through the glove of Knowles on an error got the rally started. Colton Scott banged a double to put himself and Kellam in scoring position, before Perry turned a Mebane grounder into a first out. McDow intentionally walked Franks aboard to load the bases, and the Raiders cranked out consecutive base hits to put a pair on the board, on a rifle shot to left by Estep for an RBI single and a hard-hit dribbler up the gut by Gunnar Jeffers. Jace Thompson brought home Franks for the third on a fielder's choice. 
   McDow recovered, and worked a tiresome six innings himself, allowing just one further run and issuing only two walks, with seven strikeouts to put his team in striking distance. 
   Thompson scored the lone fourth-inning run after hammering a leadoff single. McDow struck out Clark and Woodard before William Kellam tucked a well-hit liner past the third base bag and into the left field corner for an RBI triple. 
   West Laurens worked offensively on just six hits and one Perry error. Whether at the start, or in the final inning, the Raiders were able to stay the course to find the plays they needed.  
   "I’ve always coached teams that were very tenacious and resilient, and the Good Lord’s just blessed me with that, he’s blessed me with great players he’s blessed me with great coaches," Carter said. "But I’m just super excited for the guys the way they played tonight. They were in it every single pitch, and that’s one thing that I preach: Stay in it every single pitch, every at-bat, and every play."