Baseball Cougars Win MAC, TC Gets Payback - TribPapers
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Baseball Cougars Win MAC, TC Gets Payback

Cougar leadoff hitter Khalil Conley slides head-first for the tying run, as Ram SP Reno Jeter (3) comes to cover home plate. AHS head coach Bill Hillier Jr. is behind Jeter. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Asheville – Asheville won its first outright MAC baseball title in 40 years, dethroning reigning champ T.C. Roberson by beating the Rams 3-1 last week.

Roberson (18-6) as anticipated got payback two days later on May 5, with a 10-2 triumph in the home-and-away series ending the regular season. That spoiled Asheville’s quest for an unbeaten league mark.

Both teams hosted 4A playoff games Tuesday. Round two is on Friday the 13th.

Roberson is rated third statewide in 4A by Maxpreps. The Rams are expected to rank tenth in the West Region, as the premier runner-up squad. They were second at 10-2, in the Mountain Athletic Conference.

Winning to close the regular season “gives us momentum and confidence, going into playoffs,” Roberson head coach Eric Filipek said. “The guys were disappointed by how it went” in losing at AHS May 3.

Asheville (21-3; 11-1 MAC), coached by Bill Hillier, Jr., can host the first four rounds as an anticipated second seed.

Enka defeated Erwin 9-2 at home last Thursday. That forged a three-way tie for fourth (behind 6-6 McDowell) in the league at 5-7 — between those two 11-9 teams and North Buncombe (7-15). None made playoffs.

‘Best Feeling’

“It’s the best feeling in the world, to win the conference championship versus such a good team,” AHS freshman Jay Secretarski said. Cleanup hitter Larson Scholtz called the rivalry conquest “huge for us.”

These two teams shared the MAC’s 2019 title at 13-3. Roberson won the state title in 2017 with a record 31 wins — most of any Ram sports team — and was 12-0 in the league. A.C. Reynolds won the MAC in ‘18 at 15-1. The ‘20 season was halted after a handful of games, due to the pandemic. TCR won the conference last year at 13-1, two games ahead of AHS.

The victory over TCR May 3 was vintage Asheville. “Pitching and defense is our identity,” Coach Hillier noted. He praised lanky Cougar pitcher Toby Wilson for his complete game four-hitter, and for simply “throwing strikes” with any of four types of pitches. He struck out five Rams. TCR’s sole run was unearned.

Wilson’s emergence bolsters the Cougar staff. He said the key to his consistency is to “stay true to yourself, and really attack the (strike) zone — and trust” his ability. The sophomore is already as tall as Scholtz, at 6-foot-5 and a half. Those two are crucial on the mound for AHS.

Another star Cougar pitcher, Davis Hayes, recently re-injured himself a few games after recovering from an injury that delayed his season.

‘Small Ball’

Freshman starting third baseman Leo Justen had two of Asheville’s six hits.

Ram freshman Zeb Swangim’s sacrifice fly scored Tyler Kytta with the game’s initial run, in the third.

Asheville responded with two runs, to take a 2-1 lead in its half of that inning. Leadoff hitter Khalil Conley scored the tying run. The center fielder walked, stole second then third base, and scored on a wild pitch. He said that initial run “set the tone” in go-ahead inning. Secretarski went to third on the wild pitch, then scored on Kyle Moshier’s double. AHS led 2-1.

Asheville tacked on an “insurance” run in the sixth. Scholtz pointed in joy out to the ball bouncing freely, just before scoring on an errant throw from second to first base. Scholtz singled and went to second on the throw, in another case of shrewd Cougar base running. He was shaken up by the tag, but said he was not injured. He stayed in, and notched that extra run.

In the post-victory huddle, Coach Hillier urged his team to “keep adding” to its offensive attack in such games, to seek wider leads.

Asheville’s Connor Hillier was brushed back in the fourth inning. He slammed the next pitch for a deep double.

Stranded at Third

The most questionable umpire call was in the top of the sixth frame. Ram Ben Hemphill singled with two outs, and TCR down merely one run. He swiped second. He dashed to third base, as Reno Jeter drew a walk.

Wilson’s full-count pitch to Jeter bounced off the ground then catcher Erik Krumpe. It bounded up the first base line, as batter Jeter jogged toward first on his walk and Krumpe charged to field the ball.

The home ump called Jeter out for interfering with the catcher. That ended the inning, stranding Hemphill at third. Coach Filipek was ejected and suspended one game, for arguing the call. Assistant Shane Galloway filled in May 5.

Coach Hillier credited his players with staying calm and focused game long, to avoid an emotional “roller coaster.”

Credit Krumpe for throwing out three Rams trying to steal. He nailed pinch runner Cole Penland at second, ahead of Hemphill’s two-out single. Krumpe threw out a pinch runner an inning later, to help squelch a rally begun with two batters hit with pitches. A slick double play by AHS highlighted the seventh/final frame.

Rams Rebound

Ram starter Jeter, a sophomore, yielded merely two earned runs and fanned six, in five innings. TCR’s other emerging pitching star and likely playoff starter is freshman lefty Micah Simpson, with freshman Jake Parham an option, Coach Filipek said. Crafty Simpson got the win over AHS May 5, with 4.1 scoreless relief innings.

J.T. Gordon also starred in the 10-2 payback win. Promoted to the lead-off spot, he got on base three times. Gordon robbed Conley with a diving catch near the left-center field wall, to start the game.

Leading 3-2 in the fifth, fired-up Roberson erupted for five runs on hits by Kytta, Simpson and Swangim. Jeter’s two-run homer thrust TC scoring into double digits.

Jeter also homered as TCR out-slugged A.C. Reynolds 16-13 April 29 at home. Gordon had five RBI. He and Caden Davidson each had two hits.

Reynolds (6-15; 0-12) finished winless in the league — in a major rarity. The Rockets came close at TCR, also when edged 10-9 at Watauga and by 11-10 at McDowell.

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