On an unseasonably warm June weekend in 2010, West Wilkes faced Dixon in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Class 1A baseball state championship series at Five County Stadium in Zebulon. East of Raleigh, the stadium, home of the Carolina Mudcats, sits hard by U.S. 264 and close to virtually nothing else.
The Blackhawks would face Eastern Region champion Dixon, which had beaten Rosewood in three games, winning Game 3 14-5.
A stone’s throw from North Topsail Beach in Holly Ridge, the Bulldogs entered the series as the three-time Coastal Plains Conference champion with a 26-5 record. Dixon was No. 1 in Impact Baseball’s preseason 1A poll.
The Bulldogs were coached by Jack Brown and led by senior Patrick Batchelor and junior Rookie Davis.
Batchelor entered the state finals with a .455 batting average and 13 wins as a pitcher. Davis was hitting .587 with 14 home runs and 50 RBIs.
It was Dixon’s first trip to the finals since 1977 and West Wilkes’ first trip since 1987.
Game 1—Rookie takes center stage
Davis would face the Blackhawks’ Scott Gambill in Friday evening’s Game 1, and Davis would have the upper hand, throwing a no-hitter in an 8-3 win.
Born William Theron Davis III, he got the nickname Rookie “the minute he was born,” according to his father, Billy Davis. His fastball clocked at 93 mph on the stadium’s radar gun, Davis struck out 12, and the three runs he allowed were unearned. He also walked 10, thanks to a very tight strike zone.
The no-hitter was his second of the season, “but nothing really compares to this,” Davis said after the game. “It’s a great feeling, and West Wilkes is a really good team.
“They battle,” Davis said of the Blackhawks. “They make you throw a lot of pitches.”
The Bulldogs stranded seven runners in the first three innings against Gambill, but snapped a 3-3 tie in the sixth on Caleb Lanier’s two-out opposite-field single.
Dixon added four unearned runs in the seventh to put the game away.
Trailing 3-0, West Wilkes tied the game in the fifth. Tyler Stotler reached on an error, and Logan Hallock and Gambill drew walks. Pinch runner Zach Wood and courtesy runner Garrett Hamby scored on Andrew Ortiz’s bouncer up the middle that shortstop Batchelor misplayed for an error. Courtesy runner Aaron Hudler scored on Davis’ balk to tie the game.
“It was a terrible day at the plate,” Ben Wellborn, the West Wilkes coach, said after the game. “(Davis) just basically took it right to us. He’s probably the best pitcher we’ve seen all year. He kept us off-balance with his curveball, throwing it in counts where you’d normally see a fastball.”
Game 2—The Blackhawks strike back
With both the 1A and 3A finals being played at Five County Stadium, Game 2 was set for an 11 a.m. Saturday start with Batchelor, one of the winningest pitchers in Dixon’s history, facing Hallock with a chance to win the Bulldogs’ first state championship.
And as they did in Game 1, the Bulldogs took an early lead in Game 2, batting around and scoring five runs in the bottom of the first. Matt Rouse had an RBI single and Batchelor and Davis had run-scoring doubles.
This time, however, the Blackhawks answered, tying the game with five runs in the top of the second.
Ethan Church singled home Jacob Shepherd and Grafton Church, and Gambill’s three-run triple tied the game.
In all, West Wilkes had 14 hits against Batchelor and 15 total hits.
“When you give up five and then you come back in the dugout and you get five, it makes it a lot easier to pitch,” Hallock said after the game.
Tied again at 7-7, the Blackhawks took the lead for good in the top of the fourth. Hamby scored on a wild pitch and Grafton Church, who had four hits and scored three runs, drove in Gambill with an infield hit for a 9-7 lead.
Stotler also had four hits, and Ethan Church was 3-for-3 with three RBIs.
Hallock settled down after the first and went the distance for the Blackhawks.
Game 3—Shepherd’s second chance wins a title
After East Rowan beat Hunt for a two-game sweep of the 3A finals, Game 3 between the Blackhawks and Bulldogs would begin just after 6:30 p.m.
West Wilkes was the visiting team in Game 2 and had worn its black road jerseys in that game for the first time since a win at Alleghany nearly two months earlier.
Despite being designated the home team, the Blackhawks were back in black for Game 3. As Gambill explained before the game, “We won in black. We lost in orange.”
Wellborn’s personal superstition was to wear a long-sleeved black pullover for each game. Wellborn shed the jacket for Game 2, which featured temperatures near 90 at its start. The pullover was missing in Game 3 as well.
Dixon had scored 18 runs in the first two games, but Wellborn went back to Kinston Broome as his Game 3 starter, and despite not hitting 70 mph on the stadium’s radar gun, Broome pitched masterfully, holding the Bulldogs to two runs through five innings.
“I’ve never done anything like this in my life, ever,” said Broome, who was told he was going to start “right before the game, five minutes before the game.
“That was my best ever,” he said of his start.
Davis singled home a run in the top of the first, but the Blackhawks reached Bulldogs lefthander Lanier for four runs in the bottom of the inning. Grafton Church forced home a run with a bases-loaded walk, and senior Ethan Absher got his first RBIs of the playoffs with a three-run double into the left-field corner.
Will Shepherd’s RBI groundout and Ethan Church’s squeeze bunt against freshman reliever J.P. Padgett in the third made it 6-1.
It was 6-2 entering the sixth. Gambill relieved Broome after Lanier’s single drove in Batchelor, who had doubled. Dixon tied it on a two-run single from Rodman Young and an RBI single from Rouse.
West Wilkes missed a chance to win the game in the seventh and avoided a possible loss in the eighth.
Shepherd flied out with no outs and the bases loaded in the seventh, and Davis, who came on in the sixth in relief, struck out Grafton Church and Absher to force extra innings.
Gambill pitched three innings of relief. With freshman Zack Sicknick at third in the eighth, he threw his second wild pitch of the inning, but catcher Hallock retrieved the ball at the backstop and threw to Gambill, who retired Sicknick at home plate.
Gambill struck out Batchelor with the bases loaded to end the eighth.
Hallock struck out two in a scoreless top of the ninth and was hit by a pitch from Davis leading off the bottom of the inning. Gambill bunted him to second, and Ortiz was intentionally walked to set up a force play and bring up Shepherd.
Shepherd went down in the count 0-2, but grounded Davis’ next pitch past Batchelor at shortstop and into left field. Padgett, now in left field, made a strong throw home, but Hallock—with Wellborn virtually chasing him down the third base line—slid safely under catcher Sicknick’s tag for a 7-6 win.
“I had the chance before in the seventh inning, the same exact thing,” Shepherd said after the game. “I just knew that I had to do something.
“I just did like I do before every at bat. I asked the Lord to help me, and he helped me. I knew we had them in scoring position—and I hadn’t been having too good of a series—but I knew I had to do something, and I did it this time.”
Wellborn summed up the entire journey with a single quote.
“If you saw this game, that pretty much described our whole season,” he said. “We were down, we were even. We stayed with it, we stuck to it. We never gave up, we never gave in. Eventually we got to a point where we could take the whole thing, and we did. We grabbed it by its teeth and pulled it right out.”
West Wilkes finished the season 23-12. Dixon lost back-to-back games for the first time all season and finished 27-7.
Gambill, Hallock and Jacob Shepherd from West Wilkes, Batchelor and Davis from Dixon, Matt Rembielak of Bishop McGuinness and East Wilkes’ Micah Bryan all made the North Carolina Baseball Coaches Association 1A all-state team in 2010, and Luke Gragg and Ryan Harrold of Wilkes Central were 2A all-state selections.
Stotler (2011) and Will Shepherd (2012) would also be all-state selections from West Wilkes. Padgett (2012, 2013) and Rouse (2012) were also all-state selections from Dixon.
Wellborn would coach one more season at West Wilkes, finishing with a career record of 99-47, before leaving to pursue his Ph.D. at South Carolina.
(Coming in part four—Ten years later, Jacob Shepherd and Logan Hallock reflect on West Wilkes’ run to a state baseball championship.)