GAINESVILLE — North Hall coach Trevor Flow was hoping for a playoff environment in the No. 1-ranked Trojans’ hugely-important Region 7-3A series against No. 7 Cherokee Bluff.
Both teams got more than that on Monday at Cottrell Field.
Calling it “a third-round-type atmosphere” Flow watched his Trojans rally from a 2-0 deficit for a stunning 12-2, six-inning win in the opening game of their three-game series.
The shocking part was a 10-run sixth inning, highlighted by a grand slam from senior Jaret Bales and six unearned runs, aided by four big Bears errors.
“I don’t think we were being patient early in the game,” Flow said. “The guys had some really good at-bats in that (sixth) inning, taking pitches, and just doing the little things that you need to do to win games.”
In the sixth, North Hall (18-4, 13-0 Region 7-3A) loaded the bases with no one out on a Hunter Brooks double to start, an infield hit by Jon Jon Read, and a Bluff error. Tate Brooks knocked in Hunter Brooks with an infield single and Read scored on a second Bluff error in the inning. Jace Bowen brought in Hudson Barrett with a walk for a 5-2 lead.
Bales followed with a grand slam off the video screen to push the lead to 9-2.
“I was sitting fastball there because he had broken one off (with a curveball) and I knew he was coming back with (a fastball) and I was able to keep my hands in and just drove it,” Bales said. “I think that was the little push we needed.”
Barrett later finished it with a two-run double for the final runs.
Cherokee Bluff coach Jeremy Kemp said you can't make mistakes against the top teams and expect to win.
"We played great for five innings but unfortunately the games are seven innigs," Kemp said. "We just kind of fell apart in that one inning. You can't let teams like North Hall have eight baserunners on walks and hit batters. You can't make four errors. We're better than that and we'll have to play better than that in the next two to have a chance to win either of them."
The key early for both teams was Bales and Bluff starter Jacob Vokal, who both worked out of jams. The two offenses stranded seven runners combined as the game remained scoreless after three innings.
The Bears (17-5, 10-3 Region 7-3A) threatened in the first as Caleb Miele doubled with two out. But Bales got Bryce Englad looking to end the inning. In the bottom of the inning the Trojans got a leadoff single from Tate Brooks but could not advance after a pair of fielder’s choices and fly out to right.
Bluff got a two-out walk to Lucas Tritt in the second but couldn’t move him along.
After the Brooks single, Vokal settled down for the Bears, retiring eight straight, including striking out the side in the second, through the third inning. But he ran into big trouble in the third.
Vokal hit Tate Brooks, who stole second and third, and then walked Ajay Jones and Jace Bowen to load the bases with two out. Vokal went 2 2/3 innings allowing just two hits, walked two, and struck out three. He was relieved by Tritt, who got Bales to fly out to right to get out of the jam and keep the game scoreless.
The Bluff offense took that momentum as England walked to lead off the fourth and Caleb Piland followed with a long home run to left for a 2-0 lead.
Tritt retired the first four batters he faced until running into trouble of his own in the fifth. Read singled to open the inning, Barrett walked, and Tritt hit Tate Brooks to load the bases with no one out. After Jones struck out, Bowen walked to drive in a run and Bales was hit by a pitch to tie the game. But Tritt left the base loaded, getting Bradford Puryear to pop to third and Luke Erickson to fly out to left.
North Hall senior Landon Davis came on in the sixth to take over for Bales and got the Bears in order to set up the decisive bottom of the sixth.
The victory pushed North Hall’s win streak to 13 and Flow said his group is just now starting to resemble the form that helped them capture the Class 3A state title in 2021. It was an important win in a series that more than likely will decide the region champion. The Bears can still win the series outright but would now would need some help in order to catch North Hall, which moved three games ahead of the Bears in the standings.
“It sounds strange but we had to relearn how to compete again,” Flow said. “Early in the season I think we got complacent and just thought we were going to walk on the field and have good things happen. We forgot about the little things that got us where we were (last year).
“I think we’re starting to get back to understanding how we need to play baseball games to be successful. We did that tonight. The guys were very unselfish and put a big inning up. You have to do that against a really good team like Cherokee Bluff.”
The two teams are scheduled to meet on Wednesday in Flowery Branch for the second game of the series but weather may force a change. Game 3 is set for Friday back at Cottrell Field.