ATHENS, Ga. — Thursday night’s elimination game in the 2015 Little League state tournament turned into a home-run derby, and while Northern didn’t win the sweepstakes, they did take the victory.
Northern recorded 14 hits — including four home runs – to claim a 12-8 come-from-behind victory over Smyrna, who registered five homers, to advance to the championship round of the tournament at Holland Youth Sports Complex.
To bring home their third consecutive state title, the Northern all-stars will have to beat Peachtree City twice, starting at 6 p.m. Friday. A second game, if necessary, will be at 11 a.m. Saturday.
“We never gave up,” Conner O’Neal, who had two home runs and six RBIs, said. “They had really good pitching, so we just used our hands and it kept going out.”
After a scoreless first inning, Smyrna immediately went on the offensive and tallied three runs in the second (thanks to a trio of home runs) and four runs in the third (with two more homers) to take an early 7-1 advantage.
But Northern put up a four spot in their half of the third, with O’Neal’s three-run home run bringing the all-stars to within two runs at 7-5.
Smyrna scored once in the fourth to take a three-run edge, after which Northern sent 10 batters to the plate and scored seven times — all with two outs — thanks to home runs from O’Neal (a three-run shot), Chandler Blanton (solo) and Joey Bialoncik (two-run homer) to go ahead by four.
“We challenged our kids to chip away at the score — to get a few here and get a few there because it’s a long game,” Northern manager Randy Morris, whose team has outscored their opponents 78-8 in their last four games, said. “But everybody got hot in that inning and just passed it back, and hitting is contagious.”
Walt McConnell was summoned to the mound in the third inning and promptly gave up a three-run home run to Ethan Mack (who posted two homers and four RBIs) and a solo blast to Jacob Petersen, but he settled down nicely, allowing one hit while striking out six, including two in the final inning.
“I was just thinking that I had to keep my team up,” McConnell said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”
When asked about Northern’s seven-run fourth inning, McConnell — who contributed a single and a run in the frame — smiled and said, “It was a great feeling, but we’ve done it before. Those home runs for us were a pitcher’s best friend, but we still had to get them out after that.”
O’Neal, who had two hits and two runs in Northern’s 13-2 victory over Warner Robins on Wednesday, admitted Thursday was probably his most memorable offensive game.
“I hit two home runs in a game one other time, but this was a lot more exciting,” he said.
Also contributing to Northern’s hitting attack were Cason Emerson (two hits, two runs), McConnell (three hits, two runs), Devan Cail (two hits, two runs, two RBIs), Blanton (two hits, two runs, one RBI) and Zach Joyner (one hit, one run).
Peachtree City had Thursday night off, and Friday night’s game should certainly present a red-hot environment as these two teams squared off for the state title last season. Peachtree City was victorious, although the team was later stripped of the championship.
Peachtree City also defeated Northern 12-2 in a second-round game on Sunday.
“We’re going to come out and do the best we can, I can promise you that,” Morris said. “We will play hard, we won’t quit and we’ll just see what happens.”