Tuscola baseball earns emphatic win on senior night

May 6—Tuscola baseball closed out their regular season by celebrating their seniors in a dominant win on a rainy Friday night, knocking off North Buncombe 3-0.

"I was pleased because in our loss at Reynolds, we booted some balls in the rain, and we let the rain really affect us," Tuscola coach Zack Shepherd said. "Tonight, we kept playing the same way."

Senior night is always a special night as teams recognize seniors who have given their time and effort to ensure the program's success.

"We've got five seniors and they're a very integral part of the program," Shepherd said. "Four of them play every day. And the fifth one, Oliver Peach, is our energy guy. He keeps the dugout up. All five of them are irreplaceable, and we're going to miss them. We're soaking up the time with them."

While the scoreline seems tight, the game was much more one-sided on the field than it was on paper.

The Black Hawks did not get a single runner on base until a batsman hit in the top of the fifth. The visitors didn't record their first and only hit until the top of the seventh inning.

"It's the right time to get confidence going," Shepherd said. "We wanted to make sure we had all our guys throw a live inning tonight to get the feel of it."

Getting live innings against competition was especially important heading into playoffs.

The game against North Buncombe was the only game for Tuscola the entire week. The previous week, sophomore Amos Rich threw a complete game in one of the two contests, meaning some Mounties hadn't faced live competition on the mound in two weeks.

"It was great. We wanted that no-hitter," said senior Brayden Cockrell, who got the start on the mound on Friday.

Cockrell went three innings, not allowing a single base runner and striking out three batters.

"Brayden Cockrell was our two last year," Shepherd said. "This year, he battled some injuries early on, but he's really come on. He started a game at the spring break tournament and then got the shutout at Smoky. I think he's finding his groove."

The rest of the way, each pitcher got a single inning of work. The second pitcher up was senior Noah Stepp, who didn't allow a base runner in his inning and struck out one batter.

"It's really special for me," Stepp said. "I'm just thankful I could come out here with the boys and get a dub."

The first run of the game for the Mounties came in the bottom of the third and was fittingly scored by a senior.

Senior Jed West had made his way on and advanced to second courtesy of an error. On the following at-bat, West advanced to third on a passed ball and then scored on a fielder's choice.

"Jed West is a leader," Shepherd said. "You saw it during football and basketball. He's a competitor. If there's a ball and a chance to win, you know you can count on him."

West said the night was extra special due to the support he has received in his first and only year at Tuscola. The senior was a transfer from Smoky Mountain and was a key contributor for Tuscola in all three sports he played.

"It really means a lot," West said. "Coming here in my first year with the program, all the support I've been getting, it's really special to me."

The Mounties added on to their tally in the following inning. Stepp reached on a single into right field. That was followed by a double for junior Tyler Williams that sent the senior across the plate to score.

"Noah Stepp has been a great pitcher for us all year," Shepherd said. "He's hit it well all year. He's a great second baseman and moves to third when Kolt [Nelson] is on the mound. It's nice having utility guys."

Stepp also scored the Mounties final run of the game on a passed ball in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Senior Owen Ward also contributed for the Mounties on Friday night, making several plays out in left field.

"Owen Ward has come up big for us at the plate all year," Shepherd said. "He's DHed a lot this year. Tonight, he played in left field. He's a special kid."

For the players, Friday night was a celebration of their past four years in Waynesville.

"It's been really special. It's been a blast," Cockrell said. "It's crazy. It goes by fast."

Stepp highlighted just how tightly knit the whole program is.

"I love all these coaches," he said. "They've been here all my life. Maybe not [Coach Bradley] Pace, but I love that guy."

While the regular season ended on a high note, the work is not yet done for the Mounties. On Monday, playoff brackets came out. Tuscola earned the No. 10 seed and will host the No. 23-seeded Stuart W. Cramer Storm.

"We set some goals. The biggest one was that these boys wanted to play a home playoff game. They're going to get that Tuesday," Shepherd said. "We've won some playoff games, but they've been on the road. I think it's a big testament to their work ethic that we got one at home. They played a tough schedule and battled through it."

The game will be the first playoff game the Mountaineers baseball team has hosted since 2012. It will also be the first playoff game Tuscola has hosted this school year and just the sixth playoff game hosted in Haywood County this school year, alongside the Pisgah football, girls basketball and boys soccer teams' first-round games and the Pisgah volleyball team's second and third-round games.

"I think it really helps playing at home," Shepherd said. We've traveled really well in the playoffs, but there's nothing like being at home. It's nice when you don't have to get on a bus, don't have to figure out this and that. You just get to play what you're used to. I think it'll be a big crowd on Tuesday and the boys will come to play."

Ending the season on a high note also gives the players confidence heading into the tournament.

"It's good," Stepp said. "We're going into the playoffs with a win. I think we have a good shot of going to state this year."