Crusader baseball back in finals

May 15—After a one-year hiatus, Grace Christian baseball is back in the NCISAA state championship series.

The Crusaders fell behind 2-0 early in Monday's semifinal game against visiting Gaston Christian, and in fact failed to even get a hit until the third inning. However, three consecutive hits culminating in a Boaz Harper home run gave Grace the lead, and the Crusaders never trailed again en route to a 6-4 victory.

Grace, now 18-7 on the season, will host second-seeded Hickory Grove Christian (18-8) in a best-of-3 series for the state title starting Friday night at 7 p.m. Game 2 of the series will be played Saturday at 3, with a third game immediately following if necessary.

The two teams met March 22 in a neutral-site game at Oak View Baptist in High Point. The Crusaders jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning and went on to win 5-1.

This is Grace's third appearance in four years in the championship series. The Crusaders made the 1A final in 2021 and 2022, winning in the latter season.

The Crusaders entered the season with a state title as their ultimate goal, and after earning MaxPreps' top ranking in the NCISAA 3A this season and the top seed for the playoffs, the team had a week off before starting postseason play in the quarterfinals. Grace then dusted off John Paul II Catholic on Saturday for its fourth straight final four appearance. The rest of their pod in the bracket had essentially gone chalk, and fourth-seeded Gaston Christian arrived in town Monday to challenge the Crusaders for a spot in the final.

Gaston, whose softball team was also playing Grace in the semis just four miles away, came to play and jumped on Crusader ace Camron Seagraves in the first inning. Aaron Main led off with a single, and then Seagraves made a mistake and hit Meridian Leffew with a pitch. Main came around to score the game's first run two outs later, but then Crusader shortstop Boaz Harper booted a grounder and let another run in. He would make up for it later.

After that rough first inning, Seagraves dominated. He struck out the side in the second, allowing a two-out single. In the third, he allowed a two-out double but struck out the side again, throwing at up to 93 mph. Gaston "held" him to two strikeouts in the fourth and fifth innings, and were no doubt happy when he reached his pitch limit with two out and two on in the sixth. But Caleb Ellis came on and got his own K to end that inning.

Meanwhile, Eagle pitcher Cooper Summerlin was tying Grace in knots. The Crusaders used a bit different lineup than what had been normal earlier this spring, moving Will Clewis to the leadoff spot and batting Seagraves cleanup. Clewis proved head coach Rob Wooten right, as he got on base three times, including a walk to start the game. But Grace struggled early on. Summerlin struck out the side on just 13 pitches in the second inning and got the first two outs of the third.

Clewis sparked the rally on two when he lined a single into center field to end any thoughts of an enemy no-hitter in Crusader Park. Matt Murchison, also seeing the Gaston hurler for a second time, singled to right and Grace was in business.

Harper blasted the first pitch he saw over the center-field fence, and the Crusaders had the lead.

When the fifth rolled around, the same suspects were in play. Clewis led off the inning with a walk, and then Murchison and Harper had back-to-back singles that brought him home, the latter hit on a Baltimore chop that made it into short right field. After Seagraves caught Gaston by surprise with a bunt hit up the third-base line, Ellis punched a ground single through the defense and into left field for a 5-2 lead.

After the next two batters whiffed, Connor Howard worked a walk in an excellent at-bat where he was down 1-2 in the count but fought back. This forced in Harper with the final Crusader run.

Gaston tried to creep back into the game, getting a run with two out in the sixth, but Ellis slammed the door shut with a strikeout to end the inning. Leffew homered with one out in the seventh to make it 6-4, but Ellis whiffed two more batters after that to nail down the win.

Harper and Murchison each had two hits for Grace, and each of them, along with Clewis, scored twice. Harper drove in four runs.