Tuesday June 18th, 2024 11:17PM

Baseball playoffs: Vokal, Corbin, Sparks lead Bears into 1st-ever state finals

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

FLOWERY BRANCH Ga. — For a month, Jacob Vokal had been battling a back injury at the worst possible time as Cherokee Bluff was trying to work its way through the Class 4A state playoffs.

But on Monday, when the Bears needed him most, the senior put in perhaps his best performance of the season in the semifinals at Bluff Ballpark.

Vokal, pitching for the first time since April 16, went five innings, allowing one unearned run on three hits while striking out four to help send the Bears into their first-ever championship series in program history with a 5-1, Game 3 victory over Holy Innocents' to win their best-of-three series, 2-1.

On Saturday, Cherokee Bluff won the first game, 14-4 in five innings, but HIES stayed alive, winning the second game 6-3, sending it to a deciding Game 3.

“I just knew coming into today that something was going to happen,” Vokal said after surviving a massive dogpile following the final out. “That first inning was a little scary, which happens almost every game I pitch, but after that, I felt amazing. The nerves were high coming in because I hadn’t pitched in a while, but I’ve been in these spots before, and as a senior, I wasn’t going to lose."

The series win puts the Bears (32-5) into their first-ever championship series, which begins Saturday at AdventHealth Stadium in Rome against Starr’s Mill. First pitch is set 5 p.m.

Bluff coach Jeremy Kemp, who left Gainesville after the 2018 season to start the Bears program, said his players deserve the credit. And he had high praise for Vokal, who had the weight of the program on his shoulders on Monday.

“It means a lot, but these kids are the ones who did this, not me,” he said. “It’s a great group of guys who love playing together.

“Jacob was great. He threw a few more pitches than we wanted. He wanted to go more, but we had Jack Sparks, who also looked great. An amazing performance by Jacob considering. We couldn’t have asked for more from him.”

The first inning began for HIES the way most of the first two games went, with the Golden Bears loading the bases with two outs. But Vokal got Amaree Griffin to pop out to left to end the inning with no damage done.

It was the same for Bluff in the first, who got a single and two stolen bases by KT Thompson. But Vokal grounded out to end the inning with a chance to grab the quick lead.

Vokal settled down on the mound from there, getting HIES on a quick 1-2-3 in the second as the offense went to work.

Bluff batted around in the second, getting an RBI single from Tanaka Mukono that drove in Landon Kemp. Ty Corbin followed with a three-run blast to left for a 4-0 lead.

“Ty really responded there when we needed him,” Kemp said. “That’s what winners do. You don’t always win, but it’s the way you respond.”

Corbin said he wouldn’t have been in that situation without the guys in front of him.

“Bubba (Coleman) getting that bunt down, Tanaka and the other guys getting on base so that I could be in that position,” he said. “I thought I hit it pretty good, so when I saw it go over, it was an amazing feeling.”

The Bears had a chance to add on but stranded a pair of runners in the fourth, while HIES pulled within 4-1 in the fifth on an error. Bluff got the run back, scoring an unearned run in the bottom of the sixth to make it 5-1.

Jack Sparks took over for Vokal in the sixth and retired six of the eight batters he faced in his two innings for the save to clinch the series and send the Bears to Rome and the finals.

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