Playing in its second straight state championship, Andrew Jackson used that experience to its advantage in the opening game of the Class 2A championship series.
Seniors Ashton Phillips and Kyle Percival came up with big performances in the 8-4 victory over Gray Collegiate in front of a raucous crowd Saturday.
AJ leads the best-of-three series, 1-0, with Game 2 set for Midlands Sports Complex on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
“I think it is really important, that experience,” AJ coach Mike Lucas said. “We were relaxed tonight and having fun. Also, playing at home helped.”
The Volunteers lost to Legion Collegiate in three games in last year’s championship series, but have been ranked No. 1 all season. AJ came into the championship series with a 31-1-1 record.
AJ also fed off its home crowd, some of which started arriving more than two hours before the first pitch, which was pushed back 30 minutes because of heavy rain in the area during the afternoon. Following the game, most of the crowd lingered around the field with players signing autographs for kids.
While the Volunteers looked the more experienced team, the War Eagles showed signs of a team that was making its first state championship appearances. Gray starting pitcher Brent Stukes, who pitched a no-hitter earlier in the playoffs, walked eight batters and the War Eagles committed three errors in the field.
“The stage tonight was pretty big,” Gray coach Charles Assey Sr. said. “This is the first time at Gray to be on a stage like this. I think it was a little much for some of them. … But now, we got the experience to play on this stage. Now, can we improve from now until Tuesday? It is strictly up to our players.”
Anndrew Jackson made Gray pay for the mistakes, especially Phillips, a Spartanburg Methodist signee. He went 3-for-4 with four RBI, including a three-run double in the second to put the Volunteers up 4-0.
Gray used its bunting and speed to creep back in the game. The War Eagles scored twice in the third and then two more times in the fourth to pull within 5-4 after five innings.
But AJ put the game away with Skyler Hegler’s two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Percival, a North Carolina signee, picked up the win after striking out 12 in six innings. He came out to pitch the seventh and that’s when things became heated between the two coaching staffs.
Gray Collegiate had Percival at 110 pitches, which is the limit by the SC High School League for how many a pitcher can throw in a game. Andrew Jackson had him at 105 and was going to let him pitch to one more batter.
Assey and Lucas and the two coaching staffs exchanged words. Assey didn’t like the fact he was accused of fabricating the pitch count. Gray Collegiate keeps track of pitch count on the Gamechanger App, which is used by many schools across the country.
“Every time you push the button, it goes electronically. You can’t fabricate Gamechanger,” Assey Sr. said. ““To be accused of doing that is totally ridiculous.”
Typically, the home team’s pitch count is the one used if there is a dispute. Lucas said rather than keep arguing, he took Percival out of the game.
“I have a lot of respect for coach Assey and it was an in-game moment,” Lucas said.
Savion Smith, Gavin Crede and Peyton Starkey each had two hits to lead the War Eagles.