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Jackets pull off late victory over Vikings

Mar. 7—If the first game of the Sandhills 3A race between Union Pines and host Lee County Tuesday night is any indication, the conference race could be quite compelling.

The Yellow Jackets (3-0) took a 1-0 lead in the opening inning, but after leading most of the way, saw the Vikings tie it up in the sixth inning. Lee needed an RBI double from starting pitcher Walker McDuffie in the bottom of the sixth to pull out a 3-2 victory.

Both Union Pines, which won the 2021 Tri-County Conference crown, and Lee County, which took the 3A half of the Sandhills in 2022, come into this season with aspirations of moving back to the top spot not only in the SAC, but even to elbow past Pinecrest and win the outright league title.

On paper, the pitching matchup looked uneven, as Union Pines sent freshman Dylan Benedict to the mound against Lee County ace McDuffie, who has already committed to UNC for next season. Lee touched the newcomer for a run in the first, as Luke Sheets doubled on Benedict's third pitch of the contest, stole third with one out, and scored on a groundout to the right side of the infield from Blake Carlyle.

However, Benedict proved to be a tough nut to crack. He put up zeroes in each of the next three innings before Will Rannells walked with two out in the fifth. When Sheets worked out a walk as well, Union Pines coach Eric Marion pulled the freshman after 72 pitches in favor of senior Austin Mooring. Unfortunately for both Benedict and Marion, BJ Brown sliced a 2-2 pitch into left to drive in Rannells.

Union Pines immediately fought back against McDuffie, who had a shutout to this point but had also been falling behind in the count often and had a rising pitch count. Jaxon West led off the sixth inning with a single, and after a sacrifice bunt by Preston Whitaker moved West up, Jacob Williams and Tyler Lewis had back-to-back hits, both well-hit balls into right field, which scored West and then Williams to tie the score. McDuffie whiffed his way out of the inning, but found himself at 99 pitches with at least an inning to play.

Blake Carlyle reached on an error to start the Lee half of the sixth, and then McDuffie's double put him back in line for the win.

Lee County junior Gavin Swann struck out the side in the top of the seventh, earning himself a save.

The two Jacket pitchers allowed just three hits, with 13 strikeouts and no walks. Williams, Lewis, and West were the only Union Pines players to get a hit. Lee hitters had four hits and four walks, and got nothing from the bottom half of their order.

The teams will have a rematch Friday night in Cameron. Before that game is played, Union Pines (1-1) will host the Rowdy Rebel Bulls of South Stanly tonight at 7.