GAINESVILLE -- Gainesville had the momentum and a championship berth in its sites.
Houston County had the offense, however -- and over the final two innings the Bears made that offense count, scoring two runs each in the sixth and seventh to notch a 7-4 Game 3 win that knocked the Red Elephants from the playoffs on Tuesday at Ivey-Watson Field.
Gainesville twice held leads in the deciding contest of the Class AAAAA semifinal series and answered Houston County's sole charge of the first five innings to hold a 4-3 advantage, but a Bears offense that had scored no fewer than four runs in any one game this season finally caught fire late to clinch a championship berth.
"We felt like we had things going there, but no lead is safe -- not in this series," Red Elephants coach Jeremy Kemp said. "They made some big plays in big situations, and we didn't make the plays we expect to make. That was the difference."
Houston County reliever Justin Jones also helped turn the tide.
Entering the contest after Gainesville's Caleb Whitenton had delivered his third RBI of the game to knot the score at 3-3 in the bottom of the fourth, Jones got progressively stronger, allowing just one run while keeping the Red Elephants (27-8) in check when they needed a late response.
"Justin's just flat out a baseball player," said Houston County coach Jason Brett, whose program will make its first ever championship series appearance on Saturday against Whitewater. "I felt really comfortable handing the ball to the kid."
The Red Elephants kept the Bears (27-6) from settling early thanks in large part to Whitenton, as the junior crushed the first pitch he saw for a two-run home run and a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second. It was part of a big day for the junior, who finished 2 for 2. Luke Maddox also produced two hits, while Michael Gettys drove in another run. Yet the Red Elephants also left five runners on base and could not maximize other scoring opportunities, as Houston County produced three double plays during the game, two of which ended innings that saw the Red Elephants score runs -- and were threatening more.
"There's a bunch of guys on this team that were on the Little League World Series team (from Warner Robins) that won it (in 2007)," Brett said. "They're used to playing on big stages and have been in big situations. Nothing really fazes them."
The Bears showed as much on Tuesday. After struggling to build consistency against Gainesville pitchers Chandler Newton (who started and pitched four innings) and Mikey Gonzalez, Houston County came alive in the sixth and seventh, taking the lead for good. Blake Jackson belted a double to the bottom of the left field fence for a two-run double in the sixth. Hunter Phillips then made it 6-4 in the top of the seventh with a solo home run to right centerfield, followed by an RBI single from Jones to make it 7-4.
"I'm proud of Chandler and Mikey; they did a great job, and we had a couple of plays we should have made behind them -- not easy plays but plays we expect to make," Kemp said.
Newton held the Bears scoreless for three innings, though Houston County charged into the lead in the top of the fourth, 3-2. Whitenton would not let the score stand, however, putting up his third RBI to knot the contest at 3-3 in the bottom half, a hit which chased Houston County starter Hunt Smith. Gonzalez, meanwhile, entered the game for Gainesville in the top of the fifth and was given a 4-3 lead on Gettys RBI single that scored Maddox in the bottom of the frame.
The back-and-forth nature of the series was far from finished, however.
After a spotless fifth inning, Gonzalez picked up two outs in the sixth only to watch Jackson drive the ball for a two-run double -- his only hit of the day. The Red Elephants looked to respond in the bottom half, putting two runners on with one out, but Jones retired the next five batters faced to clinch the win and deny Gainesville its first state title series appearance since 2002.
"I'm proud of the guys, they fought hard all series long; a lot of teams would have laid down after Game 1 yesterday, but we fought back and really gave it a shot today," Kemp said.
Gainesville fell 6-2 in the series opener only to bounce back from a Game 2 deficit and force Game 3 courtesy a 13-7 win.
Tuesday's defeat brought an end to the careers of four Red Elephants seniors in Gettys, Griffith, Newton and Drew Satterfield -- each of whom is signed to play collegiate baseball.
"They're unbelievable; they've done everything we've asked of them and made play after play," said Kemp, who will bring back eight juniors next season. "They're also good kids and good students. They have handled a lot of things on this team and made it so much fun to coach. I don't think I've ever had as much fun with one team. I just wish we could reverse this last result."