In North Davidson, its opponent in the third round of the Class 2A baseball playoffs, West Wilkes found almost a clone of itself—a team with a patient, opportunistic offense and a left-handed sophomore ace. Even their uniform colors—black and orange—are the same.
Perhaps most importantly, the Black Knights—like the Blackhawks—are a program with a storied past. And the Knights will have the chance to add chapters to that history.
Merritt Beeker and Jake Brown combined on a four-hit shutout and North Davidson scored the only run it would need on a pair of errors in the game-changing second inning of a 4-0 win over West Wilkes Tuesday night in Millers Creek.
North Davidson won its third straight game and for the sixth time in its last eight games, improving to 21-8. The second-place finisher in the Central Carolina Conference and the No. 11 seed, the Black Knights beat a higher seed for the second time in as many games and advance to the fourth round of the playoffs for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
The Black Knights will play at No. 2 seed North Lincoln in the fourth round. North Lincoln shut out West Stokes 4-0.
West Wilkes, the No. 3 seed and the Mountain Valley Conference champion, had a 16-game winning streak snapped and ended its season at 23-4.
The Blackhawks were shut out for the first time in 61 games.
The Black Knights added three insurance runs in the sixth inning, but won the game in the second by scoring a run of their own and preventing the Blackhawks from doing the same.
Riley Ledford (7-1), the Blackhawks’ lefthander, retired the first five batters he faced and had an 0-1 count on Mason Everhart, who had homered twice in North Davidson’s second-round win over Fred T. Foard. Everhart lined the next pitch to center field, where Isaac Hamilton lost the ball in the setting sun. Everhart never broke stride, and when Hamilton’s throw to third was wide of the bag, he scored standing up to give the Black Knights the lead.
In the bottom of the second, the Blackhawks had a chance to get to Beeker (7-1), the Black Knights’ ace who had given up three runs in four innings in a first-round win over South Rowan.
Caleb Miles singled to start the inning and stole second as Ledford struck out. Beeker’s first pitch to Luke Huffman hit Huffman in the head, but Beeker picked him off first for the second out.
After working the count full, Evan Johnson floated a single to left, but left fielder Maddox Johnson threw Miles out at home plate to end the inning.
“It was big, no doubt about it…. That inning, to be able to score one right there, even though it was unearned,” said Matt Griffin, in his third season as North Davidson’s coach. “They had something going. We pick a guy off first base and then we throw a guy out at the plate. It was still 1-0, but there’s no doubt it was a big play.”
West Wilkes had one more chance at Beeker an inning later. Braxton Church singled to lead off the third. Miles walked with one out and Huffman walked with two outs to load the bases, but Evan Johnson struck out to end the inning.
Beeker “struggled with his off-speed stuff in the first couple of innings,” Griffin said, “and then he found it in about the third, and then he had three pitches to work with the rest of the game.”
Beeker struck out the side in he fifth, his final inning.
Brown, who picked up a save in the Black Knights’ first-round win, finished the game with two scoreless innings.
The Black Knights got their first run two innings before getting their first hit off Ledford, who had streaks of 19 scoreless innings and 18 consecutive wins snapped with the first loss of his career.
Brown singled and Taylor Stewart doubled to start the North Davidson fourth. But Ledford struck out Maddox Johnson and right fielder Ben Huffman made a running catch of Everhart’s sinking line drive after a nine-pitch at-bat. J.R. Lingerfelt grounded out to end the inning.
Ledford pitched around an error and stranded a runner at third in the fifth, but couldn’t get out of trouble in the sixth.
Taylor Stewart singled and Maddox Johnson reached on the Blackhawks’ fourth error of the game to start the inning, and Everhart walked to load the bases. Lingerfelt popped out to Church the catcher, but Jackson McAllister drew a walk to force home a run and make it 2-0.
No. 9 hitter Jake Craver singled to left against reliever Justin Dickson and Wesley Stewart singled over a drawn-in infield for the four-run lead.
It was only the second time in his career that Ledford had allowed more than one earned run in a game.
“We felt coming in that the winner of this game had a really good chance to represent the West in the state title series,” said Drew Ward, the West Wilkes coach, “and I still feel that way.
“That’s a really good baseball team.”
North Davidson won the 2016 state championship as a 4A school, won two more in the 1960s as a 2A school and played in the state finals in 1985 as a 3A school. Griffin played for the Black Knights and was an assistant coach under Mike Meadows in 2016 before taking over the program the next season.
“It means everything just to have another chance to play,” said Griffin, whose team picked up its 20th playoff win since 2013. “Our players… continue to get better and continue to work, and I think they believe in the process that we have for them.
“And that process was started a long time ago…. It was started back with Coach Meadows 15, 16, 17 years ago. I think these players believe in that, and if they do what we ask them to do, then at the end of the year we’ll be playing our best baseball.”
West Wilkes is 60-18 over the past three seasons, with back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in a decade and three consecutive conference championships for the first time ever.
“A lot of times a year gets lost on the last (game),” Ward said. “But I don’t want them to lose it. They’ve come together and done something nobody else has, just bought in to what we do and the expectations we have.
“We’ve got players who are willing to put in the work… and there’s a lot of people in a lot of places who are looking for that,” he added. “I’ve said it before, but I really do thank God for putting me here at West Wilkes. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.”
Second baseman Cory Lackey, one of four seniors and the only West Wilkes player to be a member of three consecutive conference championship teams, said, “It’s been a great experience.”
And for Lackey, the strongest memories are of his teammates, present and past. “Every player I see that I’ve played with—I just love seeing them,” he said. “There’s nobody that I don’t want to see.
“Everybody seems to have fun up here, and it shows. We can’t always get the job done in the state playoffs, but I bet my guys will next year.”
Notes: Church ended the season with a six-game hitting streak and Colton Stotler extended his hitting streak to 14 games…. North Davidson is 95-21 in the past four seasons…. The Black Knights got a double play in the third inning when Eli Stone was called out for oversliding second base. In an ensuing argument, Matt Church, the first base coach, was ejected.