HARLAN — Steamrolling toward their second straight 13th Region Tournament title last May, the South Laurel Cardinals discovered there is no such thing as a sure thing in baseball.
A 3-1 loss to Tyler Boggs and the Harlan County Black Bears in last year’s semifinals stayed with the Cardinals throughout the long fall and winter, burning inside them as they waited for their chance at redemption. South Laurel finally put that disappointment behind them Thursday with a 4-1 win over Corbin in the 13th Region Tournament finals at Harlan County.
“It’s a great feeling for this group of juniors and seniors. They endured the offseason, thinking they were the favorite and then got beat,” said South Laurel coach Winn Harris. “Last year it was a great effort by a pitcher. That’s the way baseball is. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes it rains, as the cliche goes. I think that was part of their driving force this year. They had a little bit of an axe to grind.”
The stage was set for another huge South Laurel disappointment. The Cardinals (27-8) has left runners on base in each of the first five innings and Corbin took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fifth with the aid of three errors.
Nick Vorbeck was safe on an error by second baseman Joe Gaines, then moved to third on Daniel Neal’s errant pickoff throw. Peyton Buford hit a grounder to shortstop Trey Martin, who tried to cut down Vorbeck at the plate, but catcher Taylor Morris was unable to hang on to the ball as it arrived at the same time as Vorbeck.
Another error and a catcher interference call helped the Redhounds load the bases with one out, but Neal worked out of the jam by striking out Andrew Jones and getting Kevin Goins to hit into a fielder’s choice ground out to shortstop. Gaines made a nifty play to get his foot back on the bag just in time after taking the throw from Martin.
“We have a tendency to have that inning that we have to survive,” Harris said. “We had that inning against Knox Central (in the opening round Monday) and we had one against North Laurel (in the semifinals Tuesday). A lot of our success depends on if we can survive that inning and keep it close. We’ve done a great job all year of pitching and playing defense to get back into the game.”
The Cardinals survived, then thrived. Neal, a junior righthander, allowed only one hit the entire game, a leadoff single in the sixth inning by Taylor Combs. The South Laurel defense was also great after the one bad inning, especially Martin and Gaines in the middle of the infield. Martin speared a line drive by Vorbeck and turned it into a double play to end the sixth inning.
South was down to its last five outs after Neal, the Cardinals’ star, was retired to begin the sixth inning. Goins, Corbin’s senior righthander, had limited the Cards to two hits when first baseman Zach Allen ripped his second straight single to start the comeback. Braden Miller tied the game when his triple hugged the right field line. Morris bounced a single over the drawn-in Corbin infield to put South ahead to stay.
The Cardinals added two insurance runs in the seventh inning. Gaines led off with a walk and scored when Martin hit a double to left. Braden Miller’s fielder’s choice ground out to shortstop brought home a hustling Martin.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” Harris said. “I worry about my kids. They’ve played so well all year long. I’m so happy for them and the way they overcome. We got down late, and sometimes you have a tendency to press. Tonight they didn’t do that and came back and put two runs up in two different innings. They wanted it. They played really well. Corbin also played a terrific game.”
Neal struck out five and walked one in his one-hitter.
Goins gave up eight hits while striking out two and walking four in suffering the loss for the 18-15 Redhounds.
South Laurel will play Scott in the first round of the state tournament on Monday at 8:30 p.m.
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Braden Miller was named the tournament’s MVP and was joined on the all-tournament team by South Laurel’s Daniel Neal, Trey Martin and Joe Gaines. Corbin was reprensted by Taylor Combs, Nick Vorbeck and Kevin Goins. Rounding out the team were Middlesboro’s Lucas Crawford and Tyler Prater, Harlan County’s Conner Leisge and Zach Doss, North Laurel’s Weston Griebel and Logan Mallory, Clay County’s Tanner Hoskins and Nathaniel Huff, Barbourville’s Tanner Moore and Jacob Rose, and Knox Central’s Seth Hill and Drew Mills.
Daniel Neal and Taylor Morris; Kevin Goins and Austin O’Neill. W— Neal. L — Goins.