Helena wins play-in game thriller over Pelham to earn playoff spot

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

HELENA – Two cities split by a train track and two schools formerly one, passion and pride are exhibited a little differently when the Helena Huskies and Pelham Panthers square off against one another. Add a one-game clash for a spot in the playoffs, and Friday, April 12, and you got a baseball game unlike any other between two teams that have won a state championship in the last six years.

 Having won seven of eight games heading into their area series with the Chelsea Hornets, the Huskies were in the midst of their best stretch of the season, but an 8-2 loss to the Hornets on Wednesday and a 4-3 loss on Thursday, put Helena on a two-game losing streak in two days, desperately in search for confidence heading into a third game in three days with a playoff spot on the line.

The Pelham Panthers, on the other hand, had won three consecutive games, including two in a row over Calera during the week by a combined score of 15-1, giving the Panthers an added confidence heading into the play-in game.

With everything on the line, the first four innings of the game were extremely quiet despite thin pitching due to their area series the previous two days, but the final three innings of the matchup more than made up for the somewhat nervous start from the two.

Having picked up just two hits, both singles, through the first four innings of the game, Helena stepped to the plate in the top of the fifth just hoping to get some momentum and possibly put a run or two on the board—instead, the Huskies posted five to bust open the game.

After a quick out, mistakes by the Panthers were what started the damaging threat from Helena. A hit batter, an error and a walk rapidly loaded the bases.

Over the next three at bats, two monster hits became the difference in the entire game.

With the bases loaded and one out, John Stephen Heacock stepped to the plate and on the third pitch he saw, he bombed a ball to right field that got down for a double and scored both Luke Stamba and Riley Marks to break the scoreless tie.

That was followed by a walk to Tyler Jon Santos to load the bases again for Brody Moss.

After watching two balls, Moss found himself in the perfect count to look for his pitch, and on the very next one he saw, he also took a ball right field that got to the fence.

With Moss flying around the base path to leg out a triple, all of his teammates on base did the same thing as the bases cleared in what became the difference in the game giving Helena a 5-0 lead.

Nate Rottier rebounded to strikeout the final two batters of the inning on the mound, which stranded Moss on third base.

After going 1-2-3 at the plate in the bottom of the fifth and down 5-0, Pelham’s odds got slimmer by the minute heading into the sixth, as the Panthers were almost in shock.

What they didn’t know then, was this team had battled all season to fight for this time and the shock would eventually turn into determination.

Following a quick top of the sixth defensively, the Panthers came back to the plate ready to roll in the bottom half of the inning a little more freed up at the plate knowing they had nothing to lose at this point.

That led to three consecutive singles from Carter Reid, Cody Ferguson and Phillip Duke to load the bases with no outs.

A sac fly from Kasey Clark then drove in Reid for Pelham’s first run of the game to cut the deficit to 5-1. That was followed by a wild pitch during Matthew Meddick’s at bat, which added the Panthers second run of the game.

Meddick ended up popping out, however, to put two down in the inning with a runner still at third. That was followed by a fly out to right field from Hunter Stowe, as the Panthers left a key runner stranded.

The Panthers did get Helena to go down quickly in the top of the seventh, and stepped to the plate in the bottom half knowing exactly what they had to do to either win with a walk-off or force extra innings.

Pelham again quickly struck having gained some confidence at the plate in the previous inning.

Adam Camlic led the inning off with a massive double to left field to quickly put a runner in scoring position. Jackson Weaver then lined a single to center field that allowed Camlic to round third and score to cut the Huskies’ lead to two runs.

That was followed by one more single from J.D. Wilkins, a young up-and-comer for the Panthers. His hit not only put runners on first and second, but brought the game-winning run to the plate.

Carter Reid then grounded into a fielder’s choice that allowed Weaver to advance to third, but got Wilkins out at second putting runners on the corner with still just one out.

Cody Ferguson then stepped to the plate and hit a flew out, but hit the ball deep enough to right field to drive in Weaver after tagging up to cut the deficit to one run with two down in the inning.

Reid, who was still at first base, represented the game-tying run, while Phillip Duke stepped to the plate as the game-winning run.

Duke and Helena pitcher Landon Leake quickly locked into a battle, which saw Leake fall behind in the county 3-1.

Looking for a good pitch in that count, Duke took the next pitch and hit a solid ground ball toward the left side of the infield, but Heacock scooped the ball and fired it directly to first base for the game-winning out to lift Helena to a thrilling 5-4 win and leave the Panthers heartbroken after leaving it all on the field.

Helena was led by both Heacock and Moss, who went 1-for-4 at the plate and had two and three RBIs, respectively. Nick Thompson and Marks added the Huskies’ other two hits.

Jacob Peters got the start for the Huskies and went six innings allowing five hits and three runs while striking out one. Leake got the save allowing two hits and one run in his one inning.

Pelham was led by Ferguson and Weaver at the plate, who both went 1-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored. Clark also added an RBI, while Duke, Stowe, Camlic, Wilkins and Reid added one hit.

Rottier got the start and went four innings allowing five runs and striking out seven in a strong effort for his team.

Now waiting for the Huskies in the first round of the playoffs will be an extremely difficult matchup against No. 2 Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa, who is 22-4 this season. A win in that series would prove the Huskies have put the up-and-down regular season in the past, and a trip to a third state championship in a row is a real possibility.

Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.