BY KRISTI REED
The Hawks advanced to the second round of the state playoffs after winning back-to-back games against Kennesaw Mountain on Friday.
Mill Creek will host Walton, the defending state champion, on Wednesday for the next round of playoff action. The doubleheader is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. in Hoschton.
Mill Creek hit the field Friday determined not to experience a repeat of last year’s playoff loss to Kennesaw Mountain. The Mustangs (17-9, 9-4), last year’s state runner-up, threatened several times but were unable to come up with big plays when they needed them most.
The Hawks (20-8, 13-3) started the night off with a double from Hunter Pope in the first inning of game one. Pope scored on a wild pitch to give Mill Creek a 1-0 lead.
Kennesaw Mountain fired back in the next inning. Cody Lodge hit a single to center field to send T.J. Eifert home. The Mustangs had runners on second and third with just one out, but were unable to get either of them home, ending the inning in a 1-1 tie.
Mill Creek’s next score came in the bottom of the third. Jacob German hit a single and brought pinch runner Alex Burton to first base. Burton advanced on a single from Noah Hanley. With runners on first and second, Kennesaw Mountain walked Matt Tunnell, loading the bases. Zach Hogan walked as well to send Burton across home plate and give the Hawks a 2-1 lead. Mill Creek missed the opportunity to add to their run total, ending the inning with the bases loaded.
After two scoreless innings, Mill Creek picked up another run in the sixth when Johnny Knight hit a solo home run deep over the center field wall.
The Hawks had a bit of a scare in the top of the seventh after an error put Mustang runners on first and second. Pitcher Brandon Bast held on to preserve Mill Creek’s lead and close out the game with a 3-1 victory.
Bast gave up only four hits and one run during seven innings on the mound.
Mill Creek head coach Doug Jones said he had some concerns after game one.
“Honestly I chewed their butts in their locker room between the games,” he said. “That’s just who I am. They know it and they expected it. You’re here, you get one shot at it. You’re not entitled to anything and you better clean it up and you better play good.”
Jones said his team was not powerful enough on the offensive side to play anything less than their very best game.
“We’re not good enough not to be at our best,” he said. “We don’t bash the ball around and all that kind of stuff. We’ve got to do well on the defensive end.”
The Hawks were forced to step up their defensive play in game two.
The Hawks took an early 1-0 lead, but Kennesaw Mountain began to show signs of life in the fourth. With one out, Mill Creek pitcher Matt Grimes walked T. J. Eifert. Charley Boring hit a short ball to third base to put runners on first and second. Grimes then walked Cody Lodge to load the bases. Robbie Payne connected and put enough distance on the ball to advance the runners after the out.
The Hawks escaped the inning with relatively minor damage as Kennesaw Mountain once again stranded runners on base.
The fifth inning was all Mill Creek as the Hawks scored twice.
With two outs, Jacob German walked. Pinch runner Alex Burton came into the game and promptly stole second. The Mustangs walked Noah Hanley to put runners on first and second. A single by Matt Tunnell sent Burton across home plate and gave Mill Creek a 2-1 lead. Zach Hogan followed Tunnell with a single of his own to bring Hanley home and increase the Hawks’ lead to 3-1.
After a scoreless sixth inning, Kennesaw Mountain had one last shot at a victory.
Grimes walked two batters and gave up a hit to load the bases with only one out. Relief pitcher Tyler Akins came through with the save. The Hawks retired Eifert after a ground ball to first, allowing Michael Lonati to score and close the scoring gap to 3-2. Akins intentionally walked Charley Boring to load the bases. With two outs and bases loaded, Akins struck out Cody Lodge to secure the win.
Jones said he was pleased with the effort he got from his pitching staff.
“Every kid toed the rubber today from Brandon to Matthew to Tyler. That’s what this team is built around. It’s what we’ve done all year,” he said. “Kennesaw Mountain is a very good ball club. The kids are in uncharted waters a little bit, but I was so proud of the way they competed and just got after them.”
Though pleased with the pitching, Jones still has concerns about his team’s defense.
“We’ve been a little shaky there for a couple of weeks,” he said. “We’ve always prided ourselves on playing good defense. Tonight and from here on out, the people that play good defense and get good pitching are going to be successful. All these games are nip and tuck and a mistake will cost you. Could be in the first inning, could be in the seventh, but they’re all just as important.”
Jones said his team needed to work on a few things, but expressed optimism heading into the second round of playoffs.
“There are some things we’ve got to address,” he said. “But if we get that kind of pitching and play good defense, we’ve got a chance.”