Bellflower's slam helps send Trojans to semis

May 6—Out of the four teams remaining in the GIAA Class AAA baseball state bracket, the most dangerous one might be the team with a record that's just one game over .500.

Things keep falling into place for the two-time defending state champion John Milledge Academy Trojans, who sit at 12-11 after sweeping Dominion Christian in the quarterfinals at home Friday.

The first domino to fall was getting ace pitcher Cooper Wilburn back to full strength in time for the state playoffs. He put on a pitching clinic in Game 1 of the best-of-three series, throwing all seven innings while surrendering just three hits and striking out six. Wilburn walked only two batters and induced a slew of groundouts as the No. 4 Trojans defeated the fifth-seeded Knights 6-1 in the series opener.

"Having him back with the energy he brings — he's the dude," JMA head coach Chad Starley said. "He's the best player in the GIAA and maybe in the GHSA. When he's on the mound and when he's at the plate we are going to rally around him and compete. That's what we did today."

Junior third baseman David Todd hit the ball hard all game long on his way to a 2-for-3 performance with 2 RBI.

On to Game 2, visiting Dominion had two tickets to the Grayson Paradise show. The steady sophomore emerged as the Trojans' No. 2 arm this season. Like Wilburn, he threw a complete game, allowing seven hits and three runs while striking out five and walking none.

"We got him some run support, and when we do that, he wins," said Starley. "He doesn't overpower anybody, but he's always in the zone with the fastball, changeup, curve, and slider. He's got four pitches and does well with all of them."

That run support started early as catcher Will Adams' two-RBI double put John Milledge up 2-0 in the first. Another was added in the second when Bud Veal's tapper hugged the third-base line to make it 3-0 after two complete.

Then a troubling trend emerged. Many times this season, the Trojans have gotten out to an early lead only to squander it later. That was the case in the third inning of Game 2 as the Knights battled back to tie things up on a Canaan Bowen one-out chopper over third.

The tie didn't hold for long at all, though. Cooper Young led off the fourth with a single and was sac-bunted over to second by Paradise. Sophomore Bradyn Harrison kept things going with another single. A flyout followed by a walk loaded the bags for Wilburn, which is a dangerous predicament for any opponent to be in. The Knights escaped that encounter with but a minor flesh wound when Wilburn worked a walk that allowed only one run across. Then came the big blow courtesy of senior Blake Bellflower, who stepped in against Dominion's Skye Jackson. The count ran full against the left-handed Bellflower before he delivered a rocket over the right-centerfield fence for a grand slam that gave the Trojans an 8-3 advantage, all the while deflating the visitors' dugout and fanbase.

"I looked at coach Jay (Bracewell) and said, 'He's going to hit a slam here.' It was awesome and good to see," Starley said.

The most trouble Paradise ran into the rest of the way was two runners reaching in the seventh with nobody out. A fielder's choice and two flyouts ended the threat and gave both the game and the series to the host Trojans.

Back to the discussion about things falling into place, besides Wilburn getting healthy, another thing working in John Milledge's favor was its final power ranking. JMA elevated three slots from seventh to fourth in the final rankings, guaranteeing them a first-round bye and at least one home playoff series (the one against Dominion). Now the defending state champs are getting to host another after eighth-seeded Valwood (16-11) defeated top-ranked Pinewood Christian (21-4) in the quarterfinals. The series went the full three games as Valwood pulled off the road upset in Bellville Saturday.

The Valwood Valiants will come to Milledgeville with a trip to the state finals on the line. The two teams met once this regular season at the tail end of spring break with JMA winning 17-4. A couple more similar efforts would put the Trojans back in the championship round. Game 1 in the semifinals will be 1:30 p.m. Friday with Game 2 to follow at 4 p.m. Should the teams split, deciding Game 3 will be played 1 p.m. Saturday, also at John Milledge. Winner moves on to Macon to face either Terrell Academy or The Heritage School starting May 16.