A jaw-dropping catch in center in the top of the seventh and a clutch hit to begin the bottom of the frame have the Vancleave Bulldogs exactly where they'd hoped to be when the season began.
Vancleave senior Evan Keith, who tripled to deep center to begin the seventh, scored from third on an error to give the Bulldogs a walk-off 5-4 win over West Lauderdale Friday night to clinch the series sweep.
The Bulldogs will play for a South State title for the first time since 2011 and they'll do it against their most intense rival — East Central, which finished off a sweep of Purvis, 4-1, on Friday night.
Game 1 of the Class 4A South State series will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Vancleave. Game 2 will be at 7 p.m. on Friday at East Central and Game 3, if necessary, will be at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Vancleave.
“I don't know if we've got enough bleachers,” Vancleave head coach Daniel Best said of the match-up with East Central. “I'm sure it will be slammed here and there.”
A pair of Vancleave errors and a couple of well-executed bunts allowed West Lauderdale to tie the game at 4-4 in the top of the seventh and put men on second and third with two out.
When West Lauderdale's Braden Luke put a charge into a Justin Stokes pitch to deep right center, it appeared as if the Knights were on their way to taking the lead for good.
Thankfully for Vancleave, it has senior Bailee Hendon manning center field.
The Jones County Junior College signee ran a healthy distance to make an over-the-shoulder catch to preserve the tie headed into the bottom of the seventh.
“I knew he was going to get it,” said Keith, who was in right field. “He's the fastest guy in the league right now. I've never seen anybody that can chase down balls like that.”
Hendon was also confident he was going to track down the drive.
“I knew I was going to get to it when it came off the bat,” he said. “I felt pretty good about it. I caught it and we were all jumping up and down all excited. It was great.”
Keith was the first man in the batter's box after Hendon's big catch for the third out.
“I knew I hit it pretty good, put a pretty good charge into it,” Keith said of his triple to center. “I ran as hard as I could and got as far as I could.”
When West Lauderdale mishandled a ball off the bat of designated hitter Colton Hipp, Keith raced home from third and began the celebration with his teammates.
“The pressure was intense,” Hendon said. “We did not want to go back up (to West Lauderdale). That would have been rough.”
With the win, Vancleave improves to 25-7 in Best's first season as head coach.
While Friday night's win kept Vancleave undefeated in the postseason, it marked the final game of Jerry Boatner's career as the West Lauderdale head coach. Boatner is retiring with 14 state titles after serving as the program's head coach since 1974.
“He's a great coach,” Best said. “If you do half as good as he did, you'll be pretty successful.”
Stokes got the win by recording all three outs in the seventh inning for Vancleave, but senior right-hander Hayden Robb battled through six tough innings to put Vancleave in position for the win.
He had to regain his control after walking four consecutive batters in the second inning to allow a pair of runs to score.
“I knew the fans were backing us up no matter what,” he said. “I focused on the zone, focused on the target. I just had to get it done.”
Jason Moss and Keith were the only Vancleave players with multiple hits. Moss had a single and a double. Keith had a single and a triple.
“They found a way,” Best said of his team. “They realized early in the season that they have what it takes to stay in games, not get down on themselves or each other during adversity. Last year, we didn't do as good a job. They're trusting each other and finding a way to get it done.”
The celebration won't last long for Vancleave with East Central up next.
"It's going to be a hostile atmosphere," Keith said. "It's going to be loud, fun."