As South Mecklenburg High School first baseman Harris Yett squeezed the ball in his glove for the final out of the Class 4A state baseball championship series on June 1 at Zebulon’s Five County Stadium, Sabres coach Jon Tuscan said his emotions simply went numb.
“I just froze,” Tuscan said. “After the final out, my assistant coaches kind of made fun of me. I reached over and picked up my clipboard and just started to stand up really slow. I was beside myself, but I guess it all hadn’t sunk in
It was understandable to see why all the Sabres had accomplished this season was slow to sink into their resilient coach’s mind. They began the season with just a 2-4 record but rebounded to win a share of the Southwestern 4A conference title for the first time since 2004.
After defeating Fuquay-Varina by scores of 2-1 in Game 2 and 7-4 in Game 3, South Meck (27-8) won its first state championship since 1989 and, Tuscan said, became only the sixth team since 1950 to lose the first game and rebound to take the best-of-three series.
But that’s what this South Meck team will be remembered for most: overcoming adversity. Tuscan was diagnosed with testicular cancer earlier in the season, and he still receives weekly chemotherapy treatments. But his team rallied around him and each other.
When they lost Game 1 – a 3-2 decision that resulted from a misplayed fly ball – there was a calm Tuscan said he could sense about his team.
“As coaches, we knew it was going to be a tough thing to do, to take two games on (the next day),” Tuscan said. “But a couple of the guys started saying, ‘Hey, we’re 5-0 in elimination games in the playoffs so far, so what’s two more?’”
It also helped that the Sabres witnessed Union County’s Piedmont High win the Class 2A state title before South Meck took the field.
“Our kids saw that dog pile (celebration),” Tuscan said. “I heard some of them saying, ‘Oh, man that looks like fun. We’re going to do that today.’”
Although the players were confident, the Sabres mustered just six hits in Game 2, and the game was scoreless until the sixth inning, when the Bengals touched Sabres starting pitcher Earl Oliver for a run, the only one he allowed during a seven-inning, complete-game, five-hit gem.
The Sabres entered the seventh and final inning down, 1-0. After Oliver singled, Max Bazin, the Game 1 starting pitcher, also singled, advancing pinch runner Christian Umphlett to third base and allowing Bazin to take second on the throw.
From there, the stage was set.
“We’ve talked all year about the aggressive club we have,” Tuscan said. “We knew if we got into a situation where we needed to be aggressive, we may be nervous but we had to execute.”
And that’s what the Sabres did, but in remarkably dramatic fashion.
McKay Wrenn got the comeback started by laying down a well-executed squeeze bunt that scored Umphlett. The next batter, Alex Wilson, got two strikes on him before he pulled off the improbable: another perfectly executed squeeze that scored Bazin and put the Sabres in the third and deciding game of the series.
“I told Alex, ‘You won us the state championship by getting that bunt down,’” Tuscan said. “With two strikes on him, he displayed so much heart and got us to play another day.”
Game 3 started with more adversity, as the Sabres fell in a 4-0 hole after starter Austin Wynn allowed a run in the first inning and three more in the second inning.
“After we got down 4-0, you could feel this calm in the dugout,” Tuscan said. “The confidence was there. It wasn’t overconfidence, where we were too pumped to execute. It was just a calm – and we’ve had it with us all year. We knew what we needed to do. And looking at (the players), I think I knew we were going to take it.”
With their sense of calm, the Sabres rallied the way they had all season, tying the score at 4 in the second inning. Bazin’s RBI single in the third inning gave the Sabres the lead. And after Luke Miller added two insurance runs in the fourth, the Sabres were up, 7-4, a lead they weren’t going to relinquish.
Michael Smith went 4-for-7 with two RBIs in the series for the Sabres. Yett had a three-hit game, and Smith and Brooks Kennedy each had two hits in the final game. Wynn (6-2), Bazin (10-2) and Oliver (10-3) all pitched complete games for the Sabres, limiting the Bengals to just four earned runs along the way.
When the dust finally settled, the Sabres got their dog pile they’d talked about earlier in the day and gave Tuscan and the South Meck faithful a championship they’d been waiting on for more than two decades.
“That’ s a special group of guys we have, and what we did is remarkable,” Tuscan said. “It still hasn’t sunk in yet, I guess, but it’s a great feeling and an incredible accomplishment.”