Crusaders drop one to powerhouse Combine

Mar. 28—Coaches at Grace Christian were excited in the preseason when the schedule was finalized and Combine Academy of Lincolnton agreed to play a game at Crusader Park this season.

Combine is a private school that offers students an education but is also focused on athletic performance, similar to IMG Academy, and it plays one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Last year, in its third year of offering a baseball team, the Goats went 31-11 facing teams from all over the nation, some of them at the junior college level. A few of the North Carolina teams they played, and beat, included NCISAA 2A state champion High Point Wesleyan, Wayne Country Day, and NCHSAA public school power Topsail.

Grace got its date with the Goats on Tuesday night, and the first inning of the game was one in which neither side was pleased with the tight strike zone of the home-plate umpire. However, the visitors handled the situation better and got four runs in their half inning to just a pair for the Crusaders. Grace starting pitcher Caleb Ellis was charged with three walks, but also hit a batter and allowed a hit. Then, with two out and a man on third, the Goats stole a base and led 4-0 before the Crusaders even took a swing.

In the bottom half of the inning, Grace got two of those runs back after Matt Murchison and Ellis also walked and Alex Pena Jimenez had an RBI single, but Grace left him on base, which was a problem for the team later in the game as well.

In the bottom of the second, Wesley Clewis and Camron Seagraves walked to put two on with two out for Murchison, but he grounded out to end the inning. In the Grace third, Ellis reached on a two-base error with one out and then Pena Jimenez had a brilliant at-bat where he fouled off five pitches and battled back from 1-2 to earn a walk. However, Combine pitcher Hunter Chambers pitched out of this jam as well.

Chambers, a senior originally from Delaware who has signed with Coastal Carolina, is a right-hander with a fastball clocked at 91 mph. He struck out five in 3.2 innings, allowing just one earned run. Grace ran his pitch count to 94 and got him out of the game, but then the Goats unleashed another D-1 recruit, senior Eddie Rogers, on Grace. Rogers, a senior bound for UNC-Greensboro, delivered more 90-plus heat and allowed one run in 3 1/3 innings, striking out five.

Errors that allowed three straight Goats to reach base in the top of the fourth led to two more runs for Combine Academy and a 6-2 lead. Ellis pitched out of it with two men on base, but the Crusaders couldn't help him out, and neither could he help himself. In the bottom half of the inning, Grace loaded the bases with two out, but Ellis hit into a fielders' choice.

In the Grace fifth, the Crusaders stranded runners on second and third. Seagraves led off the fifth by smacking a 3-1 pitch over the right-field fence to make it 6-3, and then Murchison and Ellis both got hits, but they were left stranded when Rogers retired the last two batters of the inning.

Grace outhit Combine 4-3 and drew nine walks to six for the Goats, but didn't get enough timely hits to overcome them. Grace will face them two more times next month, on April 16 in Lincolnton and six days after that in Crusader Park.

Grace took the No. 1 spot in the MaxPreps power ratings on Monday and may well hold it despite this loss. The Goats are 5-1 against high school teams this season, with their only loss coming on the road to a very strong Chattanooga (Tenn.) McCallie team.

The Crusaders have a week off before visiting Forsyth Country Day on April 4.