By BLAKE MCCORMICK
By the time South Walton and Freeport went into extra innings to break their scoreless tie on Feb. 28, it was though the spectators in the big crowd at South Walton’s Hawks Nest had been patiently waiting for a delayed fireworks show in the intra-county district contest.
Finally, with bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth, a colorful finale seemed inevitable. But, Freeport pitcher Hagen Brown, who had gone the distance for the Bulldogs, striking out 14 batters on 121 pitches, tossed a pitch that wound up a passed ball that allowed South Walton’s Flint Bekkers to race home standing up to give the home team a 1-0 win. The final run drew cheers from the green and white faithful, and had some members of both fan bases disappointed for the players that the hard fought contest didn’t end with an earned play.
“Yeah, we would have liked to have won it on a hit, but hey, we’ll take it,” said South Walton coach Nick Borthwick.
Freeport coach Shane Williams stated, “We threw our guy and they threw their guy. It’s a dicey game. Whoever makes the first mistake, whoever blinks, that’s the end. We knew that. It was a helluva game. That’s all you can say.”
The game was highlighted by Brown and South Walton’s Adam Richards and Taylor Collier, who all put on a pitching showcase that was supplemented by sturdy defense by both squads.
“You have to tip your hat to Hagen Brown, Adam Richards, and Taylor Collier,” mentioned Borthwick. “I don’t know if you’ve seen three guys pitch as nice a performance so early in the season.” Borthwick, a Freeport graduate who was a high school teammate of Hagen’s father, Ryan Brown, spoke highly of the Freeport ace. “Hagen, I tell you, was tough to hit. He had us off balance with that slider. He’s a helluva pitcher.”
Both teams went hitless in the first two innings. With one out in the top of the third, Dylan Lewis garnered the Bulldogs’ first hit with a darting single to center field. Karson Florence followed with a single of his own while Lewis beat the close play at second. After Bailey Miller grounded out, Dalton Simpler walked to load the bases only to have Richards sit the Bulldogs down with a clutch strike out. In the bottom of the inning, Brown struck out three consecutive Seahawk batters to keep the contest scoreless.
In the top of the fourth, Freeport’s Lane Free hit a single to center, but South Walton’s Austin Garofalo owned the inning, recording three put outs from the shortstop position, including one that involved a sharp throw to first that was so nifty it even drew a complimentary reaction from some of the Bulldog fans in attendance.
Collier took over on the mound for the Hawks in the top of the fifth and quickly helped retire the top three Bulldog batters. In the bottom of the fifth, Richards delivered a grounder for the Hawks’ first hit of the game. The junior outran the close play at first when Freeport’s Wesley Canaday had to jump from the bag to snag an off-target throw. Subsequently, Richards would steal second and eventually advance to third, but clutch fielding by the visitors from Four Mile Village ended the inning without their rivals from Santa Rosa Beach scoring.
Neither team generated a hit in a sixth inning that was highlighted by Freeport catcher Ethan McFerrin picking off an attempted steal of second with the help of Zack Johnson.
In the seventh inning, South Walton made things interesting when Hunter Crawley hit a single to left and subsequently stole second base. The sophomore tried to take third, but was picked off by McFerrin and Bulldog third baseman Dalton Simpler. The game went into extra innings after the last two Hawk batters grounded out.
“We had a base-running blunder trying to be aggressive and just hesitated,” said Borthwick, whose team left runners in scoring position in the last two regulation innings. “We had guys on base but couldn’t get that base hit. But, I like our bats. We’ll improve.”
In the top of the eighth, Freeport was set down on three consecutive pop flies. When South Walton returned to the plate, Brown quickly struck out the first Hawk batter but Collier got on base with a line drive hit placed perfectly between second and third base. Tyler Holland followed with a hard grounder to shortstop which was bobbled by the Freeport fielder, allowing Collier time to advance to second. A wild pitch by Brown would then advance Collier to third and Holland to second. The senior would walk Garofalo but rebound to strike out the next batter, creating a tense atmosphere with two outs and the bases load. Brown put two strikes on South Walton’s next batter, Chase Miles, making it look like the Bulldogs would survive to fight another inning. But the game would end, somewhat anticlimactically, when Brown tossed the next pitch as the ball got away from home plate, allowing Bekkers to stroll across for the winning run.
Borthwick stated that he is excited about what this season could hold for his fifth South Walton team. “I feel like we’ve got the best team we have had. Last year we won 20 games and won a district championship. I feel like we can repeat. We have a tough schedule, we go to the Atlanta area in a couple weeks to play some big teams. We feel like to advance in the playoffs we’ve got to beat that type of pitching. We just want to keep improving.”
For Freeport, Williams seemed positive despite the loss to the Bulldogs arch rivals. “Our guys have played together for a long time. They know the ups and down of the game. They knew we had a shot there at the end. South Walton made the plays and we didn’t. We’re going to see them again and I’m ready for it.”
On Friday, March 3, both teams were back on the field. Freeport traveled to Pensacola and returned home the victim of a 6-2 loss to Escambia. The 6A Gators only garnered two earned runs against the Class A Bulldogs but untimely fielding mistakes doomed the Bulldogs. Bailey Miller pitched six innings giving up seven hits and four walks.
South Walton hosted Baker and easily conquered the Gators with a 9-0 decision that saw freshman Aiden Keenan and Cade Watson team with sophomore Kai Wilk to throw a no-hitter.
The Seahawks are 2-0 overall as well as in district competition and travel into Georgia for games on Friday and Saturday this week.