Crusaders let big lead slip away at CBA

Mar. 23—For four and a half innings Thursday night, Rob Wooten was enjoying a joyous homecoming to his alma mater.

Then the roof caved in on the Grace Christian head coach and his Crusaders.

Wooten, a legend during his high school years at C.B. Aycock High School in Pikeville (2000-03), who went on to star at UNC-Chapel Hill and reach Major League Baseball in 2013, found himself back in his old digs Thursday for a game against the present-day Golden Falcons, a traditional 3A power that came in with a 5-1 record.

Nevertheless, the Crusaders dominated the game for the first four and a half innings. As CBA came to bat in the bottom of the fifth, Grace led by eight runs. Unfortunately, the Crusaders would not score again, while the Falcons mounted a furious rally and claimed a walk-off win in the bottom of the seventh, 12-11.

Poor control, and a costly error in the final inning on a play that should have ended the game as a Grace win, made the difference. Four Crusader pitchers combined to hit three Golden Falcon batters and walk nine others. Both foibles were on display in the game's final moments that doomed Grace.

With the bases loaded and two out, Crusader freshman Jaxon Wade got Aycock's Joseph Buckley to hit what appeared to be a routine ground ball to Grace second baseman Nolan Harper. However, Harper booted the ball, leaving the bases loaded and a run in to make the score 11-9. Wade then walked the next Aycock batter to pull the home team within a run.

Wooten made a pitching change, bringing in Caleb Ellis to pitch to Dalton Smith, but Ellis didn't have his control, either. He walked Smith on five pitches to tie the game, and then hit Braxton Toler with a 2-2 offering to win it for the Golden Falcons.

The Crusaders, who sustained their second loss of the season, but bounced back in an early Friday game to defeat Hickory Grove Christian 5-1, are now 6-2 on the season. While there was no shame in losing to the Golden Falcons, who are the fourth-ranked team in the NCHSAA 3A East region, this is one Grace would surely like to have back.

CBA head coach Allen Thomas managed the game aggressively, using five different pitchers and even making an MLB-style matchup switch in the top of the seventh, when the Crusaders had runners on second and third with one out. After the second out was recorded, Thomas put in a new pitcher just to pitch to Grace's Alex Pena Jimenez, and Jonathan Winters caught him looking at a 2-2 pitch.

The Crusaders scored at least once in each of the first five innings of play. It was 5-0 after the top of the second when the Falcons responded with three of their own, but then Grace added one more in each of the third and fourth innings and four more in the fifth. Crusader starting pitcher Landon McDonald had just struck out the side in the fourth and Grace seemed to be cruising to a win.

However, the first four batters of the bottom half of the inning reached for the home team, on two hits followed by two walks, and when Riley Mullen came in to relieve, he allowed three hits and a walk of his own as CBA scored five times to get back into the game, down 11-8.

Mullen pitched a scoreless sixth, but the Crusaders had another meltdown in the seventh, walking four batters, hitting two others, and committing the game-extending error that cost them a victory.

Camron Seagraves had an excellent day leading off, going 3-for-4 with four runs scored. Matt Murchison was 2-for-4 with three RBI and two runs scored, and Wesley Clewis scored twice from the No. 9 hole.

Grace 5, Hickory Grove Christian 1The Crusaders were back in action Friday in a game that was moved up to a noon start to avoid bad weather. And it was a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the team was hosting the top-ranked NCISAA 3A team, and defending state champion, in the form of Hickory Grove Christian of Charlotte. This game was played in High Point at Oak View Baptist Church, with Grace as the designated home team.

The good news for the Crusaders, as they faced a team they will likely have to beat come state playoff time, is that it was ace Camron Seagraves' turn on the mound, and that is bad news for the other side. Hickory Grove (7-2) actually got two hits off Seagraves, which is better than two other teams did this season. However, Grace won the game 5-1.

The Crusaders got Seagraves all the runs he needed in the first. Ellis singled to drive in Murchison with the game's first run, Pena Jimenez drove in Boaz Harper with a sacrifice fly, and Ethan Bunce singled to score Ellis.

Each team had a run in the third, with the Lions turning two walks into a run, but Grace answering when Boaz Harper walked, stole second, and Ellis drove him in with a single.

Pena Jimenez and Bunce opened the Crusader sixth with back-to-back hits and then Pena Jimenez scored on a double-play ball.

Ellis and Bunce each had two hits to lead Grace. Seagraves struck out 13 but hit his pitch limit with one out to go. Wade closed it out.

The Crusaders will be back at Oak View Baptist today at 11 a.m., where they will play High Point Christian Academy, the No. 8-ranked NCISAA 3A team and the team Hickory Grove beat for last year's state title.