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Third time is a charm for Crusaders

Apr. 24—Grace Christian baseball came into Monday night's game with Combine Academy as the state's top-ranked NCISAA 3A team and with the highest strength of schedule of any team in the class. Playing Combine Academy for a third time certainly did not hurt the latter.

The good news for the Crusaders is that this time, they won.

Combine Academy, a Lincolnton-based private school that runs a college baseball preparatory program similar to IMG Academy, had been a thorn in the Crusaders' side this season. The Goats, whose only loss to a high school team prior to Monday came at the hands of 4A public school powerhouse Asheville Roberson, beat the Crusaders on March 26 and again on April 16. But the third showdown went to Grace, which rode a strong pitching performance by Camron Seagraves and some aggressive baserunning in the fifth inning to take a 4-3 win at Crusader Park.

Grace (12-5) was locked in a 2-2 tie with the Goats when Matt Murchison sparked a one-out rally in the fifth with a single to center. Boaz Harper followed by walking on five pitches against Combine pitcher and San Diego State commit Joseph Norris, whose wildness got worse with Seagraves at the plate. Both runners advanced on a 1-0 wild pitch, and the count was 3-1 when the Goats' catcher threw the ball away and allowed Murchison to score the go-ahead run. Harper moved to third on the play, and scored with two out when a passed ball got by with two out.

With a 4-2 lead, Seagraves worked around his own error in the top of the sixth. He allowed a leadoff double to Markus Kirksey to start the seventh and then struck out Filip Kubicek. A pinch-runner for Kirksey scored on a passed ball during the at-bat, but the bases were now empty. However, this put Seagraves at 108 pitches for the game and he had to depart, having hit his pitch limit. Riley Mullen came in, walked the first man he faced, but then got a strikeout and a popup to end it.

Seagraves, in his 6 1/3 innings of work, struck out 13 and walked just one. He allowed four hits and one earned run.

Grace took a 1-0 lead in the first inning and was fortunate to get that after Harper was picked off first base. Both he and Murchison had singled with one out, but Murchison scored on a wild pitch shortly after the pickoff to put the Crusaders on top. The Goats took a 2-1 lead in the second after Kirksey and Kubicek had back-to-back hits with one out. Kirksey then scored on a passed ball before Kubicek, a baseball standout from Czechia who came to Combine to develop his skills against better competition, stole home with two out.

Grace tied the game in the bottom half of the inning after Caleb Ellis walked and later scored on a passed ball. From there, things settled down. Seagraves struck out the side in the top of the third against three players who have all signed with Division I schools—Jaden Knight (Notre Dame), Hunter Chambers (Coastal Carolina), and Reggie Sharpe (Michigan State).

Seagraves got on in the bottom half of the inning and got into scoring position, but Norris whiffed Ellis to end the threat. Seagraves continued the game of beating D1 prospects by whiffing Miles Shore (Georgia State) in the fourth, and fanned Kubicek to end the inning after a two-out single by Kirksey. He struck out the side again in the fifth, catching Knight looking to end the inning.

The win snapped a two-game skid for the Crusaders, whose previous two outings had been a 9-2 loss to the Goats in Lincolnton and a 5-3 loss to Wayne Country Day on Saturday. Neither loss affected Grace's own rating much, however. Combine is Combine, and Wayne Country Day, the team whose landlord is literally Crusader head coach Rob Wooten, is 20-3 and the state's top-ranked NCISAA 2A team. The Crusaders will travel there Friday evening to play the Chargers again, at an athletic complex owned by Wooten.

However, before that game takes place, Grace will be at home Thursday night to face the Wake County Warriors, the state's top homeschool team, for a rematch of an April 10 game won by the Crusaders. This isn't an easy game, either. The Warriors (16-7) beat down defending NCISAA 2A state champion The Burlington School 11-0 in their most recent outing.