Their appearance in the state semifinals already marked the farthest the Northside Patriots have advanced in the playoffs during the baseball program’s 17-year history.
Now, they’ve taken one more step toward a championship.
The Region 1 third-seeded Patriots continued their remarkable series of upsets on the road as they prevailed 3-1 Wednesday at Region 8 first seed North Oconee in Game 3 of the best-of-three Georgia High School Association Class AAAA series.
“I’m so happy for this team,” said Northside junior outfielder Mack Williams. “We worked so hard for this, and now we can showcase what we can do.”
“We’re not done yet,” said Northside senior infielder Clayton Weaver. “We want to win it all.”
The Patriots will play another upset machine, Region 7 fourth seed Denmark, in the Class AAAA championship series at State Mutual Stadium, the home ballpark of the Atlanta Braves’ minor league affiliate in Rome. The first two games will be May 21, starting at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The third game, if necessary, would be May 23 at a time not available before this story’s deadline.
“It’s going to be awesome,” said Northside coach Dee Miller, who’s been with the program for 11 years, six as an assistant and five as the head coach. “I’m really proud for our team and for our school.”
Denmark’s head coach is a familiar face: David Smart, who preceded Miller as leader of the Northside program. Smart compiled a 93-68 record with two state quarterfinal appearances in six years with the Patriots before resigning following the 2014 season.
“It’s crazy how it comes full circle,” Williams said.
Northside and North Oconee split Tuesday’s doubleheader — both winning 6-5 with last-inning rallies. This game, however, featured the pitchers mostly in control.
Will Graydon, a junior, earned the win. In 5 2/3 innings, he allowed one run (a homer) on four hits and three walks with two strikeouts. Hunter Poe, also a junior, pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings. He allowed one hit and no walks with two strikeouts to notch the save.
Connor O’Neal, a sophomore, led the Northside offense with two of the team’s five hits.
Williams put the Patriots on top to stay with a solo home run in the second inning for a 1-0 lead. It was his second home run of the series.
“I’m just seeing the ball well,” Williams said. “Everyone is doing their part; I just want to do my part. … Once we got the lead, I knew we weren’t going to give it up.”
“He just doesn’t give at-bats away,” Miller said. “He zones-in on a particular pitch in a particular spot.”
Northside made it 3-0 in the third inning. Poe reached base on an error and scampered to third as North Oconee committed another error, this one on junior Tray Richburg’s sacrifice bunt, when the throw got away from the first baseman.
Weaver then drove in Poe and Richburg with a single up the middle.
“I knew when he got two strikes on me, I just had to put it in play and not be too selfish,” Weaver said.
“That was huge,” Miller said. “… It gave us a little wiggle room, and we were able to attack their hitters and be aggressive.”
Graydon hadn’t pitched in a month. The rust showed when he walked the first two batters he faced.
He admitted thinking then, “I’m in trouble.”
But he got out of trouble when North Oconee ran into trouble.
Senior left fielder Spencer Chandler caught a flyball, and the runner on second was called out for leaving the bag too early as he was trying to tag up. Graydon then got the groundout he had sought to escape unscathed.
“Outstanding,” Miller said. “He shook off the nerves early and kept pounding the zone. Our infield played really well behind him. … He’s just gone about his business to be ready, just a tip of the hat to his preparation.”
To settle down and pitch well, Graydon said, “felt amazing. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to ruin it for the team.”
Miller praised his team for bouncing back after losing Game 1 when North Oconee overcome Northside’s 5-3 lead with a three-run seventh inning.
“We talked about adversity punching us in the face and how we’re going to respond,” he said.
Miller recalled telling the Patriots before Game 2, “We get to show everybody how tough we are.”
They did indeed. Trailing 5-4 in the seventh, the Patriots rallied for two runs. O’Neal’s liner down the right-field line knocked in Weaver with the winning run.
“We just had to dig deep and get the job done,” Weaver said. “… Baseball is a game of surprises. We’re one of those teams that, if you doubt us, you’re going to be in trouble because we don’t stop.”
Asked what kind of reception he thinks the players will receive from their classmates, Graydon said, “I’m usually not excited to be at school, but it’s going to be fun.”