GAINESVILLE — As far as season-opening games go, North Hall’s last-gasp, 3-2 win over Flowery Branch Monday at Jody Davis Field left both squads feeling optimistic.
North Hall (1-0) secured the victory when catcher Charlie Erickson gunned down Flowery Branch's Andrew Reichart at second base on a relay throw, as Reichart tried to stretch a two-run single and get in scoring position.
(NOTE: To get a look at our 2017 season preview, published Monday morning, click here.)
The positives were the Trojans saw senior right-handed ace Reese Olson toss six shutout innings of two-hit ball while striking out eight in getting the win. Flowery Branch, sporting a new coach and virtually an entirely new roster, rallied for two runs in the final inning after managing just a pair of singles and one walk up to that point.
“Reese threw well but he could have been even better so that’s encouraging,” North Hall coach Trent Mongero said. “We were able to scratch out some runs offensively, but it takes a few games for the offense to get going so there were some positive things to take from this besides just the victory.”
For new Falcons coach Heath Kennedy, who was coaching at Prince Avenue a year ago, getting a chance to see his new charges in action against a quality opponent gave him a glimpse of what could be. Falcons starter Preston Felt, a late transfer from Prince Avenue Christian, struggled at times, yielding five walks and three runs in just 2 2/3 innings, but also kept the Falcons within striking distance.
“Preston I think was rushing a little bit,” Kennedy said. “We didn’t help him letting a couple of balls drop (in the outfield), but we could have laid down after we got down. The guys battled back at the end and had a chance. We won’t get worse; we’ll get better so I feel good, especially with it being the first game.”
Both pitchers had some jitters early it appeared. In the opening frame Olson walked Grant Lackey but then picked him off to face the minimum. In the bottom of the first North Hall threatened, getting a pair of two-out walks from Caleb Clark and Jackson Latty. They moved to second and third on a wild pitch and stolen base, but Felt struck out Charlie Erickson to get out of the jam.
In the second, the Falcons’ Cam Holmes got the first hit of the season with a two-out, infield single, but Olson enticed Andrew Reichart to fly out to right to end the inning.
Felt retired five in a row with three strikeouts into the third before running into a costly jam. Taber Mongero stroked a long opposite-field double to left with one out for the Trojans' first hit of the season and then scored the first run on a two-out single to left by Clark for a 1-0 lead. Felt then walked Latty, Erickson, and Olson to plate another run for a 2-0 lead and was lifted for JC Sewell.
On Sewell’s first pitch, Latty pulled off a straight steal of home for a 3-0 advantage.
Meanwhile, Olson settled in, retiring seven straight through the fourth inning with four strikeouts in that span. His streak of eight straight was broken by another single from Holmes, who was stranded at second.
North Hall (1-0) had a chance to blow it open in the fifth, moving runners to second and third after back-to-back doubles from Clark and Latty, but reliever Zack Wagner got out of the jam, getting Erickson to line to center and Olson to ground out back to the mound.
“We wanted to get our three starters some work, and I thought JC and Zack did a very nice job of getting us out of some trouble,” Kennedy said.
Olson continued to dominate the Falcons lineup, eventually going six innings while fanning eight and surrendering just two hits and one walk. Caleb Clark came on to start the seventh looking for the save.
But the Falcons (0-1) greeted Clark rudely with a double by AJ Gonzalez and a single by TJ Armstrong to put runners at the corners with nobody out to open the seventh inning, bringing the potential tying run to the plate.
Clark, however, recovered with strikeouts of Dalton Strickland and Holmes. Andrew Reichart then ripped a single to left, plating Gonzalez and a courtesy-runner to cut the lead to 3-2 but Reichart was gunned down at second to end game.
“I thought our defense was pretty good for the first game,” Mongero said. “We always play nail-biting wins with Flowery Branch to open the season it seems. But we like to schedule tough games at the beginning to hopefully help us at the end.”
Latty had a perfect day at the plate for North Hall with a double, two walks, and his steal of home that proved to be the game-winner. Clark also was perfect with a double, single, a walk, one RBI and a run scored.
Sewell and Wagner were tough on the mound, combining for 3 1/3 innings allowing just two hits, no walks, no runs, and fanning three in relief.
The Falcons next will take part in the Perfect Game Spring Swing doubleheader on Friday in Cartersville.
North Hall next will take on Buford on Wednesday at home. First pitch is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. It is the season-opener for the Wolves, who were the Class AAAA state runner-up in 2016.