SPARTA — To paraphrase a line from a Grateful Dead song, what a long strange trip it’s been for the Wilkes County Little League all-stars over the past week.
That trip came to an end on Sunday afternoon.
Unfortunately, so did its goal of capturing the District 2 baseball championship, as Yancey County was victorious 10-4 in the finals at Alleghany High School.
After losing its opener to Yancey County last Monday, Wilkes County went on to play four-straight elimination games to reach Sunday’s championship game, which included making four trips to Alleghany in five days.
“The kids fought every play, I was super proud of them. They showed a lot of heart, they never gave up and fought every inning — I couldn’t ask for a better group of kids,” said Wilkes County Head Coach Scotty Lambert.
Wilkes County (4-2) had a golden opportunity in the opening inning to generate some offense after it loaded the bases with nobody out.
After Caden Carroll struck out Grayson Clonch, Grayson Townsell hit a comebacker to Carroll, who threw home to C.J. Burleson to force out Jacob Adams. But as Burleson threw to first base in an attempt to retire Townsell, Lambert came around to score for the early 1-0 lead.
That would be the only run Wilkes County scored in the inning after a Jackson Buchanan groundout.
The lead was short-lived as the Cougars (4-0) responded in the bottom of the first when it loaded the bases and Burleson cleared them with a triple.
Wilkes County fought back in an attempt to tie the game in the top of the second following back-to-back singles from Brady Shore and Casey Adams.
But Adams would be picked off first base during Phoenix Blackburn’s at-bat. Blackburn cut the deficit in half as he reached first on a bunt single that scored Shore.
Blackburn went on to steal home during Jermaine Ferguson’s at-bat to tie the game.
“We had a lot of confidence. They had good, quality at-bats; that’s what we’ve been preaching to the kids. They showed a lot of toughness and hit the ball very well today,” said Lambert.
After the early runs, Carroll held Wilkes County hitless over the final four innings and allowed just one more run — an RBI groundout to Payton Huffman in the top of the sixth. Carroll picked up the win as he allowed just five hits and struck out eight.
On the other hand, Wilkes County had exhausted much of its pitching during the loser’s bracket games but Clonch was riding high after earning the save in Saturday’s win over Watauga Blue.
With innings still to spare, Clonch pitched well early but ran into trouble in the third after Carroll and Cason Jones reached on errors.
Clonch then put Malachi Cooper, who homered twice in the two teams’ first matchup, on with an intentional walk. Cooper ended up hitless in the game but Branxon Fox and Burleson, who followed Cooper in the lineup, were able to capitalize on the situation.
Fox made it a 5-3 advantage with a two-run single and Burleson added an RBI single.
That hit signaled the end of Clonch’s outing but Yancey County’s offense didn’t slow down when Casey Adams came in and pushed the advantage to 8-3.
Adams avoided further damage by getting Brayden Deyton to hit into a 4-6-3 double play. Adams and Brady Shore held Yancey to just three hits in a combined 2 ²⁄³ innings of relief.
All told, Wilkes’ pitching allowed just one earned run but the defense committed five errors.
“Shore and Casey came in and gave us some great innings for us,” said Lambert. “Grayson started but his arm started hurting really bad so we had to pull him sooner than we wanted to but the kids threw great. They hadn’t pitched in almost two months and came in and threw well for us in a tough spot.”
Yancey County, which now advances to the state tournament on July 25-28, added two more runs in the fourth, led by a Matthew Ledford RBI single. Ledford and Burleson finished with two hits apiece. Wilkes County did not have a player with multiple hits.