AUBURN, Ala. — Smiths Station coach Tim Ferry knew a popular topic entering Friday's Class 7A quarterfinal matchup with Auburn wasn't a popular one. That storyline centered around the last time the teams met this season, which saw the Panthers get swept. But as Ferry pointed out, his team was in a similar position last year: cede the regular season meetings with the Tigers only to knock them out in the playoffs.
And since the teams split Friday's doubleheader, Smiths Station has a chance to pull off the feat for the second year in a row. Ferry couldn't ask for much more.
"Our kids understood that (sweep) didn't matter because we did what we did last year and we've got pretty much everybody back from that team," he said. "So they didn't overreact to that. Media wants to make it what it is, but you've got to put the uniform and the cleats on every day and come out and play."
In Game 1, the Panthers took a 5-2 victory behind a dominant pitching performance from Max Newton, who pitched a complete game, scattering two hits and allowing two runs, only one of which was earned. Offensively, the Panthers touched up the Tigers' pitchers, notching 11 hits.
In the early going, it looked as if neither team would score. After the top of the third, there were no runs for either side. And Newton and the Panthers were just one out away from finishing another scoreless frame when Tiger center fielder Rowdey Jordan reached on an error. He went on to steal second and eventually score on a wild pitch from Newton.
That marked the only run that would score in the contest's first five innings, and it appeared Smiths' bats would never wake up. In the sixth inning, however, the Panthers finally settled into a rhythm.
It all started with a leadoff double from Grey Norton in the top of the sixth. He moved to third on a sacrifice double from Dalton Sinquefield. Newton then helped his own cause, singling to bring Norton home and tie the game at one-all. The Panthers were not even close to being done, though.
Following Newton, the Tigers got four more hits in a row: singles from Nigel Lawrence, Caleb Lynn and Devin Brown and a double by Timm McGonegle. The latter three also had RBIs on their hits, with McGonegle picking up a pair.
Once the onslaught finally ended, the Panthers had scored five runs on five hits to take a 5-1 advantage.
The Tigers had one last salvo in them, though. Once more, it came from Jordan, as he led off the bottom half of the sixth inning with a solo home run. But that was the final run by either side, as Newton cruised the rest of the way to seal the 5-2 victory.
But Auburn emerged victorious in Game 2, winning 12-6.
Ferry was disappointed there wasn't more carryover from the opener.
"We came out and scored a run in the first. They scored and we scored too and went back ahead," he said. "So we had momentum going our way and then the bubble burst when we didn't make a couple plays, and that hurt us."
Most of those issues were on defense. The Panthers committed four errors, which bothered Ferry far more than giving up a dozen runs.
"We had two plays in the field where we didn't make play, but we didn't give effort after we didn't make the play and that ended up costing us runs," Ferry said. "Not making the play is one thing. But not giving that effort after you don’t make the play is inexcusable. ... We reacted the wrong way a couple of times and it cost us. We’re better than that and we know we’re better than that. They know it’s not acceptable. It shouldn't happen again and I don’t think it will."
The series heads to a deciding final game Saturday, which Auburn will host. First pitch is set for 2 p.m. ET.
The winner of the Smiths Station/Auburn series will move on to face the winner of Fairhope in the semifinals. Fairhope went on the road Friday and swept Theodore.
In a win-or-go-home situation Saturday, Ferry fancies his chances.
"Hopefully tomorrow we’ll come out and play our best game. If we do, we’ll win," the coach said. "And the players know that. They've seen if they play the game right and do the things we’re supposed to do, we can hang with anybody in the state. I believe that and I they believe that, too."