Wilkes County 8-and-under all-stars made it three state championships in four years this past weekend.
The most recent one came in very exciting and impressive fashion.
Wilkes County faced five must-win games during the North Carolina Tar Heel League state tournament at Currituck Community Park and won all five of them to capture its fourth state championship for that age group since 2012.
After not playing for almost three weeks prior to last Thursday’s opener, Wilkes County Head Coach Roger Pilkenton was pleased with the fight the girls showed in some very hot conditions where temperatures reached to the low to mid-90s (with a heat index of nearly 110) during the weekend.
“It was amazing to see how those girls really came together. I felt that the layoff between the end of our regular season and district affected us more than the one we had before state because we only had four or five practices before district because of the weather,” said Pilkenton. “I knew that we had some really talented and athletic girls and they took care of business — it was really awesome.”
Wilkes County, which went 6-1 during the state tournament, had little trouble in its opener — a 13-4 against host Currituck —but quickly found itself in the loser’s bracket after a 12-6 loss to Wendell.
Wilkes trailed 8-5 after three innings but Wendell pulled away with four runs in the fourth.
According to Pilkenton, the loss to Wendell might have been a good thing.
“I told (Wendell’s coach) that you guys did us a favor because they were so confident for the rest of the tournament,” said Pilkenton. “In that game, we played, no doubt, the worst game we had played the whole tournament. The worst in that we had some ground balls that were easy plays and we just didn’t make them or made a bad play. In a league like this, at that age, it’s going to snowball.
“I told them that game was history and you can’t change that but what you can change, and will have an impact on is the next game,” added Pilkenton. “But when they started kicking off five-run innings in a row, I knew they were serious.”
Wilkes County defeated District 1 representative Burke County in the first elimination game on Friday 12-1 and followed up with two big wins on Saturday, highlighted by a 7-4 win over Cleveland.
The victory against Cleveland also featured the play of the tournament, according to Pilkenton.
Holding a 7-4 lead going into the last inning, Cleveland had a runner on first base with one out and one of their players sent a fly ball to right field that looked to be trouble.
But right fielder Jaycie McGlamery was able to track down the fly ball and make the play for the second out with a textbook catch to preserve the win.
“Typically in this age group, you’ll see outfielders stop the grounders and our goal was to get it into second to stop the runner,” said Pilkenton. “You don’t see them catch a fly ball. So, what you’re thinking is you have at least runners on second and third, if not third and you’ve already scored. And that ball went up, and most of the time, they’ll catch the ball to the side.
“But Jaycie went over, got right underneath that ball and I told my son (Assistant Coach Jason Pilkenton) that she’s going to catch that because she was so perfectly aligned with that ball,” added Roger Pilkenton. “There was no question in my mind that was the play of the whole tournament.”
Wilkes County followed its big win against Cleveland with a 15-3 win over Cashie to secure its spot in the championship game.
Peyton Cockerham scored three times in the win while Callie Wayne and Emma Garza each scored twice.
Wilkes County led Wendell 5-0 in the first game after two innings but the opponents battled back and tied the game 7-7 after five innings.
Wilkes responded by scoring the Tar Heel League-maximum five runs in the sixth and then completed the two-game sweep with an impressive 16-0 win in the winner takes all game.
“Before Sunday, I could tell they weren’t as intimidated because they knew then if they did what they had been doing the last three games, they had a chance,” Roger Pilkenton said about facing Wendell for a second time. “It was just a matter of putting the ball in play and making the routine plays and that’s what they did both games.”
Wilkes County outscored its opponents 82-31 in the state tournament (after outscoring teams 48-12 in the District 2 tournament).
During the seven games, Pilkenton had a strategy where during the coin toss, he chose to be the visitors every time.
It proved to be effective as Wilkes County scored 11 first-inning runs and scored in the first inning in six of the seven games. It was followed up with 19 second-inning runs.
“My philosophy is at this young age, you want to hit and make a difference at the plate,” said Pilkenton. “I told them that if we can go to the plate, get some runs in the first inning, when they come to bat, they’re going to look at that scoreboard, they’re going see that they’re down one or two or five. I told them that it just puts a little added pressure on them and they know they have to score.”