Briarwood wins game one, now a win away from Class 5A state title

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

MONTGOMERY – A two-and-a-half-hour weather delay wasn’t enough to slow down Noah Whatley, as the senior pitched likely for the final time at the high school level in the first game of the Class 5A State Championship series against the Springville Tigers on Thursday night, May 16, at Montgomery’s Patterson field.

Whatley got off to somewhat of a shaky start that saw the senior give up three combined runs in the first four innings, including two in the bottom of the fourth before play was delayed due to lightning with two outs and a 1-2 count, but what happened next was a defining moment for his career with the Lions.

Following the lengthy delay, Whatley stepped back on the mound at 7:25 p.m. and didn’t just continue a solid outing, but seemingly got better with the time to rest. With two outs following the delay, he needed just two pitches in the inning to close it out, with the second being a third strike.

Following that out, Whatley emphatically punched his glove and fist pumped with both arms showing how much that out meant to him.

He did give up one more run in the bottom of the fifth, but his teammates came back to give him the lead in the top of the sixth at 5-4. He took advantage of that and got the Tigers to go down in order thanks to an inning-ending double play.

Then in the bottom of the seventh, with the one-run lead still intact, Whatley stepped back on the mound looking for the complete game victory that would have spanned over four hours of actual time.

He got a quick out in the inning and looked to be in good shape before a hard hit to right field ended in an error and the batter hustling to second base. That led to head coach Steve Renfroe pulling Whatley still needing two outs.

While he didn’t get the complete game, he did everything he could to help his team win and exited to a standing ovation from the crowd and hugs from his teammates.

Carson McKinney then came in and got the final two outs of the inning with a line out to right field and a pop up to catcher Tyler Waugh, which gave the Lions a 1-0 series lead to put them a win away from the Class 5A State Championship for the first time in school history.

For Whatley to come back out after pitching for four innings and then sitting for two-and-a-half hours was impressive, but his 6 1/3 innings and four strikeouts overall and one run after the delay were jaw dropping.   

The thrilling back-and-forth game started in the top of the first when Briarwood got off to a seemingly perfect start following Bryce Perrien being hit by a pitch to start the game.

After a sacrifice bunt moved him over to second, Wesley Helms hit a ground ball that took an awkward hop off an area where the grass met the dirt on the infield allowing it to fool the shortstop and get into centerfield and bring home Perrien.

McKinney stepped to the plate and followed that with an infield single to shortstop that put runners on the corners. Sam Hamner then went opposite field for the third single in a row to drive home Helms for a 2-0 lead before a double play ended the inning.

It didn’t take long into the bottom half of the first for Springville to respond, as three pitches in, the Tigers got a solo home run from Brandon Daniels to quickly cut the deficit in half at 2-1.

Despite an error allowing another baserunner with one out, starting pitcher Whatley got out of the inning without any more damage.

After both teams went 1-2-3 in the second inning and just one baserunner reached in the third, the action kicked back up in the fourth inning.

In the top of the fourth, Hamner led off the inning with a single up the middle, and one batter later, Blake McKenna split the gap between center and right field to drive home Hamner from first for a 3-1 lead.

A base running mistake on a bunt attempt by Eli Steadman saw McKenna tagged out at third after overrunning the base, and after that the Lions couldn’t bring home another run in the frame.

Not scoring became costly, as Springville came back with a big answer in the bottom of the fourth.

For the second time in the game, the Tigers were able to hit a solo home run to cut the deficit to one run when Brant Brown drove one over the center field wall to almost the identical spot Daniels hit his.

After back-to-back singles, Jake Goolsby stepped to the plate and tied the game at 3-3 with a sacrifice fly before a lightning delay halted play with two outs in the bottom of the fourth.

Aside from Whatley’s stellar play following the delay, the offense’s bats also remained hot.

In the top of the fifth, the Lions put together a two-out rally kick started by a double from McKinney. That was followed by a single from Hamner to bring home McKinney and put Briarwood in front 4-3.

McKenna followed with a double, but both baserunners were left in scoring position after a strikeout ended the threat.

As they had done through the first four innings, Springville came back with an answer in the bottom of the fifth thanks to three singles in the first four at bats.

The latter of those singles came from Braden Hughes and ended with an RBI when ax Harrison crossed the plate to tie the game again, this time at 4-4 through five innings.

But Briarwood hadn’t been tied for more than a half inning in the entire game to that point, and quickly broke the tie yet again in the top of the sixth.

In what could have been a more damaging inning, Briarwood led off the inning with a walk and back-to-back singles to load the bases with no outs.

With pinch-runner Pierce Covin on third base and Parker Hutson up to bat, the Lions were hoping for a big hit to clear the bases, but instead it was a wild pitch that brought Covin in for the go-ahead run.

Springville went on to record three consecutive outs in a row to end the inning with two runners left in scoring position for Briarwood.

It didn’t matter, however, as Whatley and McKinney were now determined to close the game out on the mound, which led to Covin’s run being the game-winning run in a 5-4 victory.

At the plate, Hamner led the way with a 3-for-4 game featuring two RBIs, while Helms and McKenna both went 2-for-4 with one RBI apiece. McKinney also went 2-for-4, while Waugh went 2-for-3.

Briarwood will take on Springville in game two of the series on Friday at 10 a.m. at Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium. If the Lions win, they’ll be Class 5A state champs, and if they lose, they’ll play again in an if necessary directly after.