Wednesday June 19th, 2024 12:44AM

STATE FINALS: Bluff swept out in 4A title series by Starr's Mill

By Jeff Hart | Video by Seth Chapman

ROME Ga. — To be the best, you have to beat the best.

And it took the best Starr’s Mill had to offer to knock off Cherokee Bluff in the Class 4A championship series on Monday at Rome's AdventHealth Stadium.

The Panthers swept the Bears, 11-1 and 2-1, to capture their second title in four years. But Bluff had the early lead in both games and had the winning run on base in the second game in a series that was just one hit Bluff hit from heading to Columbus on Tuesday.

Starr’s Mill coach Brent Moseley said it took everything they had to hang on.

“Cherokee Bluff played us tough and pitched really well in that second game,” he said. “They pushed us. That game could have gone either way, but who knows what happens in a third game?

“But, and I’m sure I’m going to make some people mad, this is probably the best team I have ever coached. That’s what it took to beat Cherokee Bluff. That’s a really good team over there.” 

In a series where both teams were dominated by senior experience, sophomore pitcher Brock Rein may have been the ultimate difference. He pitched three innings and struck out six with no walks, closing out both wins.

The Bears got a double from Bubba Coleman and a single from Caleb Davis in the seventh inning of Game 2, but Rein struck out Tanaka Mukono and was able to get Ty Corbin to line out to second to end the series.

Two feet higher, Corbin’s liner would have at least tied the game, bringing up KT Thompson, who would have a chance to win it. Despite the sweep, it was that close.

Cherokee Bluff coach Jeremy Kemp had nothing but praise for his group, who were making their first-ever state championship series appearances.

“We hit some balls really hard, but we just couldn’t find anything to drop. Two feet higher on (Ty’s) liner) and we’re still playing (Tuesday),” Kemp said. “I’m proud of our guys and how we battled. Our seniors have put us on the map.”

Both teams had to wait two extra days to play their best-of-three series. The series was originally scheduled for Saturday but was postponed until Monday due to heavy rains that hit the area.

Kemp said we’ll never know how, or if, that had any effect on Monday’s outcome.

“We didn’t like it, but at the same time, they didn’t either,” Kemp said. “Waiting forever like that is awful, but everyone had to do it, so you just have to be ready. And I thought we were ready to play.”

Another key factor was a Bluff offense that had been struggling in key moments despite rolling through the playoffs with an 8-1 record. And perhaps the deepest pitching staff in 4A was tough to crack as the Bears were just 3-for-11 with RISP for one RBI in the series. Starr's Mill was 7-of-19 with RISP and 9 RBI in the series.

The Panthers (33-2) finished the season on a 15-game win streak. Bluff (32-7) led Class 4A wins until Monday.


Game 1: Starr’s Mill 11, Cherokee Bluff 1 (6 inn)

Bluff grabbed a quick 1-0 lead off Heath Whitlock in the bottom of the first when Corbin beat out an infield single to lead off and then scored on a sacrifice fly by Ethan England.

Tucker Holton started strong for Bluff, retiring the first five batters. But he ran into trouble in the second as Starr’s Mill batted around. 

The Panthers tied it at 1-1 on back-to-back singles, and then Austin Sellers scored on a wild pitch. They took a 2-1 lead on an RBI single from Charlie Clem, and Max Prozny made it 3-1 with an RBI single to right. Holton finally got out of a bases-loaded jam, getting Brock Rein to line out to center.

Bluff threatened in the third as Caleb Miele and England walked with one out. But Whitlock got Jacob Vokal to ground out and struck out Landon Kemp to end the inning. The Bears stranded six runners, four in scoring position, through the first four innings.

Holton settled down after the second, retiring four straight and seven of eight into the fifth. But the Panthers knocked him out and blew it open in the fifth.

Another RBI single from Bo Walker made it 4-1, and that was followed by RBI hits from Sellers and Austin Killingsworth sandwiched around a throwing error from Logan Robinson to push the lead to 7-1. Whitlock ripped a three-run triple to center for a 10-1 lead.

Whitlock would eventually go five, scattering three hits and five walks but giving up just one run to get the win. Rein took over for Whitlock in the sixth and retired all six Bluff batters to close out the win.

Game 2: Starr’s Mill 2, Cherokee Bluff 1

The Bears had another solid start as Vokal mowed down the Panthers in the top of the first, and England ripped an RBI single to left to give the Bears the early 1-0 lead again in the first.

But Starr’s Mill answered back in the second, getting an RBI double from Drew Richardson to tie the game.

Vokal, who had been battling a back injury for the past month, was forced to leave the game with one out in the third after throwing just 37 pitches. Jack Sparks took over on the hill and gave up a single to Whitlock and a walk to Rein to load the bases. But he got Jack Ryan to ground into a double play to end the inning and keep the score tied.

But in the fourth, the Panthers got an RBI double from Sellers and had runners at first and second with no one out and a 2-1 lead. But Sparks got a strikeout, a tremendous running catch from Thompson in left that saved two runs, and then a fly ball to right to get out of the inning with no further damage.

But Starr’s Mill starter Kyle Rudolph settled down in the middle innings. The junior right-hander retired seven straight through the fourth with four strikeouts.

Sparks had one of his best outings of the season in relief for Bluff, going three innings. The senior right-hander threw 64 pitches, got a pair of defensive gems behind him, and worked around an error and a walk in the fifth to keep the Bears within striking distance.

“Jack kept us in the game and gave us a chance,” Kemp said. “Again, we hit some balls hard but couldn’t get anything to fall.”

Sparks was relieved by Gabe Gowder, who got Max Prozny to line out to center to Corbin, who threw to second, catching Richardson for a double play to end the inning.

Starr’s Mill went back to Rein in the sixth, who was able to work out of a huge jam in the seventh to close out the series.

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