Crusaders beat one powerhouse, fall to another

Apr. 30—Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Grace Christian baseball lived that way on Friday and Saturday, when the Crusaders hit the road twice in less than 24 hours and faced what MaxPreps says are two of the top eight high school teams in North Carolina.

The Crusaders were probably happy to get the split.

On Friday, Grace visited Wayne Country Day for a rematch of an earlier game, in a showdown of the top-ranked 2A (Wayne) and 3A (Grace) teams in the NCISAA. The Crusaders survived a three-run homer with two out in the bottom of the seventh inning and held off the Chargers, ranked eighth in the state regardless of classification, for an 8-7 win.

The next day, it was a road trip to Wilson's Fleming Stadium for another clash of titans. Hoggard is ranked No. 7 in the state regardless of classification, and the Vikings, ranked No. 2 among NCHSAA 4A East teams, beat the Crusaders 9-1.

Grace, ranked No. 1 in the NCISAA 3A and 26th among all high school teams in the state, is 14-6 with three games remaining in the regular season, all this week. The Crusaders hosted Thales-Apex in a Monday night game, and end the week with a game at Cary Christian on Thursday and at home against South Carolina powerhouse Legion Collegiate Academy on Friday. Following that game, they will await the announcement of the NCISAA playoff bracket on May 5. If the Crusaders maintain their No. 1 ranking on MaxPreps, they will likely be the top seed in the 3A bracket, and never have to leave Crusader Park in the state tournament.

Grace had lost to Wayne Country Day when the teams met here earlier this season, but jumped on the Chargers (22-4) in the second inning of Friday's game at the C35 complex in Goldsboro. Ethan Bunce and Alex Pena Jimenez opened the frame with singles, and then Connor Howard doubled in the game's first run. A Nolan Harper groundout scored Pena Jimenez with the second run before Wesley Clewis and Matt Murchison rapped back-to-back singles of their own to make it 3-0. Camron Seagraves hit a sacrifice fly to make it 4-0.

The Crusaders added a run in the fourth and two in the fifth to lead 7-1 with just nine outs to go. But the Chargers didn't go down easily. Wayne, which had been short-circuited to that point by Crusader starter Caleb Ellis, crawled back two unearned runs in the bottom half of the inning thanks to an ill-timed error. They got closer in the sixth, pushing across one run and having runners on first and third with one out before Crusader reliever Jaxon Wade pitched Grace out of the jam.

Pena Jimenez homered with one out in the top of the seventh to make it 8-4, and it was a good thing he did. In the last of the seventh, Wade got two quick outs and then allowed a walk and a single. Then Aycock, a junior rated by Perfect Game as a top college prospect, stepped up and crushed the second pitch he saw over the right-field fence to make the score 8-7. Wade then got Grace out of the inning with a win by retiring the next batter.

Aycock, the Chargers' leadoff man, was a thorn in Grace's side, going 2-for-3 with two walks, two runs scored, and two RBI. However, Pena Jimenez topped him, going 3-for-4 with a double, home run, three runs scored and two RBI. Nolan Harper and Matt Murchison each had two hits for the Crusaders, both driving in two.

The Crusaders had to get right back on the bus Saturday afternoon for another very tough game. Grace sent Seagraves, their ace, to the hill at Fleming Stadium and he struck out 10 over five innings, allowing just one earned run. However, shaky defense by Grace meant he departed trailing 4-1, and the team imploded the rest of the way, falling 9-1.

Ellis led off the bottom of the fourth with a solo home run to put Grace within 2-1 at that point. The Crusaders loaded the bases with two out in that inning but failed to capitalize.