The previous two 3A winners will meet to decide the 2016 North Carolina High School Athletic Association Champion when the Topsail baseball team squares off against defending titleholder Marvin Ridge in a best-of-three series beginning on Friday, June 3 at Burlington Athletic Stadium.
It’s been a season of ups and downs, from losing nine seniors the previous year to having their head coach suspended due to situations off the field prior to the start of workouts. The Pirates finished third this season in the split 3A/4A Mideastern Conference standings, and it could have been easy to make excuses as to why things didn’t pan out for the Pirates the way they had hoped.
In the midst of a three-game losing streak against division opponents about a month ago, the sense around the Pirates’ dugout was that the season may be winding down. But something clicked for the boys from Hampstead and a 2-0 victory against league champion West Brunswick in their final regular season home game set off a spark that no one thought would propel them to the program’s second state championship series in three years.
“I don’t think anyone – including our own team – thought that we’d ever be here,” said Senior Bryce Cota. “I think come playoff time we really understood that it was one and done. All season we’ve been battling. All our losses were pretty much close games. We had a feeling during our trip to NHSI (National High School Invitational) playing top caliber teams that we could compete with anyone when we played our game.”
Facing some high level opponents during their visit to the USA Baseball Complex in Cary in late March for NHSI was one of the early season indications the club had what it would take to achieve their goals. Toss in the fact it’s taken a village to manage the program during a tumultuous time without their head coach. The team’s been led by interim coach Chris Blake, a handful of assistants, volunteers and even parents.
Injuries also played a big role in how Topsail has gelled down the stretch, with several first-year players having to step up when their names have been called, while senior second baseman Chase Riker continues to tough out the pain stemming from a foot injury nearly a month ago.
If there weren’t enough explanations for the Pirates not to be playing for a state championship this week, the improbable run is what makes sports great.
“Our guys could have given up at any time,” said Blake. “It goes to show the depth of talent and toughness in this program. We lost a ton of guys last year and we’re pretty much a re-tooled team this season. Through in the injurie, the boys have really learned what work ethic and team is all about.”
Pitching has to help carry a team to this point of the year and Payton Rice has been that guy for the Pirates all season. Having tossed just 13 innings in 2015 as a junior on a 25-win team that came up short in the postseason, Rice dedicated himself to becoming one of the main reasons why Topsail is now just two wins away from the program’s second state title.
With an 11-1 record after picking up a pair of victories during the 3A East Regional, Rice has been dominant on the mound. His work ethic even landed him an opportunity to play next year at Louisburg College. The big righty has logged over 84 innings this spring, mixing in a good variety of pitches to remain unhittable for most of the season. His ability to pitch to contact when needed and use the strikeout in key situations has earned him a 1.02 ERA, with 76 strikeouts to just 24 walks.
“Payton has always had it in him,” Cota added. “He just never really had a chance because our pitching staff over the last few years has been so dominant. He knew going into the season he was going to have to step it up and he’s done just that. He’s progressed as a pitcher and a leader. Him as a person and as a player, he’s always wanted to be in the spotlight and he deserves it.”
While Rice will be the game one starter for the Pirates on Friday night, Payton Phelps has also done a solid job as the team’s number two in the rotation. The southpaw is a good counter to Rice in a three-game series, with freshman Aidan Smith also logging some important innings out of the bullpen down the stretch.
Offensively, Topsail has been streaky for much of the year. With a team batting average hovering around the .300 mark, the Pirates have good speed throughout the lineup, situational hitters who can move runners over when needed, but timely hits will need to be a huge part of this weekend’s matchup against Marvin Ridge if they hope to defeat the defending 3A champions.
“We didn’t get the production we needed in the one loss to Corinth Holders last week,” said Blake. “We’ve been able to get hits and get runners on all season, but those hits in key situations are going to be important this week.”
Juniors Josh Madole and Sam Hall have been top-of-the-order type players all season, with Hall leading the team in batting average (.367), total hits (33) and runs scored (23). Madole has been slotted in as Topsail’s lead-off man. His ability to drive the gap and hit for contact has mixed in well alongside Cota, who worked his way into the two-hole during NHSI.
Riker learned of his injury a few days after taking a hard slide in Shallotte during a game against West Brunswick. Since then, the Barton College commit learned that he wouldn’t be doing any more damage to his foot if he played, so it was game on for the playoffs.
Shortstop Shane Nolan has fit in at one of the most important position in the field, while Aaron Beach, Cam Kimrey and Garret Myrka give the Pirates plenty of speed and athleticism navigating the outfield.
Topsail may have been a long shot to get to where they are as a No. 17 seed in the east region, but now that the Pirates worked themselves into another state championship appearance, anything could happen and Topsail has the dirt stains on their pants to prove it.
They’ll face a Marvin Ridge squad looking to go back-to-back after taking their West Regional series two-games-to-one following a 7-1 win against Ledford to clinch a berth to their second straight finals.
The Mavericks have a 28-5 overall record and breezed through the Southern Carolina 3A Conference with a 14-1 mark. Marvin Ridge has won 17 of their last 18 games.
3A Championship: No. 2 Marvin Ridge vs. No. 17 Topsail
Burlington Athletic Stadiu
Game 1: June 3 – 5:00 p.m. Marvin Ridge – Home Team
Game 2: June 4 – 11:00 a.m. Topsail – Home Team
Game 3: June 4 – 5:00 p.m. Marvin Ridge – Home Team