Tuesday June 18th, 2024 11:59PM

STATE FINALS: 'Finishing' is top priority for Bluff seniors in 4A title series

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

The results are always in the finish.

In 2023, Cherokee Bluff had one of the top teams in Class 4A. They were ranked No. 1 at one point during the season, a first for the still young program at that time, and set a program-record with 28 wins. But they were not able to finish off their quest of a first-ever Final Four run or a state title, losing to Lovett in the second round.

But as they say, ‘that was then, this is now.’ 

The Bears, who were ranked No. 1 at one point in 2024, busted down the doors of both of those barriers over the past two weeks. First, they beat Wayne County to get into the Class 4A Final Four and then knocked off Holy Innocents’ in the semifinals.

Those two series’ wins gave them 32 on the season, another new program record and the most in Class 4A. It also vaulted them into Saturday’s Class 4A state championship series against Starr’s Mill at AdventHealth Stadium in Rome. First pitch for an opening doubleheader is set for 5 p.m.

(NOTE: Heavy thunderstorms are in the forecast for most of the day in Rome.)

“We did not finish last year the way we felt it should have,” said senior pitcher Jack Sparks, who closed out both wins against Holy Innocents’ in the semifinals. “The goal now is to finish this.”

Senior infielder/pitcher Jacob Vokal said a focus on the little things has been the biggest difference.

“We had a great team last year and it definitely did not end the way we wanted,” Vokal said. “Last year, errors killed us (at the end of the season). This year, we talked about playing inning-by-inning and not thinking about the play ahead but just making the play that’s in front of you.

“That’s what we wanted to change coming into the playoffs this year, which is what we’ve done as a team. Some of us are struggling at the plate right now. But the only thing that matters is getting that ‘W’ and that’s what we’ve been able to do.”

Starr’s Mill (31-2) has been ranked No. 1 for most of the last half of the season, after Bluff dropped out of the top spot following a pair of losses to East Forsyth -- the only team that was able to take two wins against the Bears so far in 2024.

The Panthers have steamrolled their way through the bracket, going 8-0 and averaging 11.25 runs/game in the playoffs, including a shocking 13-8 and 13-1 semifinal sweep of defending state champion North Oconee last week.

Senior center fielder Ty Corbin, who jacked a huge three-run home run against Holy Innocents’ in the Bears’ 5-1, Game 3 win in the semifinals, said it will all be in the small details.

“Starr’s Mill is a really good team, they hit the ball really well. You have to play clean. You can't win without playing clean. We've hung our hat on defense all year, and obviously we're going to have to battle at the plate and get some runs,” Corbin said.

“Battle “ is the appropriate word. When they left the field last Saturday after a disappointing split with Holy Innocents’, it looked like Game 1 starter Tucker Holton might have been lost to injury after a play at the plate in Game 1. Vokal, the projected Game 3 starter, had not pitched in a month and the offense had gone just 5-for-23 with RISP with just 5 RBI and stranded 21 runners, 14 in scoring position in the first two games of the series.

But Vokal turned in one of the better playoff performances in recent years, scattering three hits and fanning four, allowing just one unearned run in five innings. Holton played outfield in Game 3 and is expected to start Game 1 against Starr's Mill.

“(For Jacob) to come back after that long and not even pitching in a single game and do that. I mean, that's incredible,” Corbin said. “That's what winners do. And he's a winner.”

Bluff coach Jeremy Kemp agreed.

“I thought (Jacob) did great for not pitching for so long. He wanted to go longer and he’s probably mad at me for taking him out,” Kemp said. “But we knew we had Jack fresh and Jack looked great, also.”

All three players said the key will be the same as it has been throughout the season, including the playoffs.

“This team, we're so close,” Corbin said. “We can talk openly to each other and I think that gives us the ability to be honest with each other and just (say) how we feel. And, you know, obviously we have trust in each other. So that gives us a huge advantage over everybody.”

“We’re family,” Sparks said. “These are my brothers and they mean a lot to me. We just need to play our game and be us. We don't need to change anything.”

“Last year, the seniors left the mark for us,” Vokal said. “This year, we had a chip on our shoulder (because of how it ended last year). (Winning the semifinals) was just awesome. To realize we're in the state finals in our first six years (as a program) is just amazing.

“And to do it with these guys is the best part.”

Now, they just need to finish one last task.

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