by Rob Grubbs
In the pursuit of their first state championship in baseball, the Starr’s Mill Panthers began a journey back in February with a senior-laden roster, a deep pitching rotation, and a veteran coaching staff. Along the way, the Panthers went undefeated in region play and fought a tough non-region schedule, including two talent rich tournaments. They rolled undefeated through the first three rounds of the state playoffs, including series sweeps against Bainbridge, Kell, and Decatur. Their goal was in sight and only one round remained in their path to the championship series, but they would come up short in a 9-3 game three loss to Loganville.
The opponent was a familiar foe, one the Panthers had played and beaten earlier in the season at the Georgia Peach Invitational, the Loganville Red Devils. The Panthers beat the Red Devils 4-0 on March 3 behind a masterful pitching performance from Jack Moore. Panthers Head Coach Brent Moseley said this would be a matchup of two even teams and one or two plays would decide the entire series. After winning game one and taking a 1-0 lead in the third inning of game two, the Panthers could almost taste the bus ride to the championship series.
For the first time in the playoffs, Starr’s Mill faced a pitching staff that was just as deep as theirs. The result was two heartbreaking losses in games that they lead as their season came up just a bit short.
Jake Arnold closed out his Panther career on the mound in game one and saved perhaps his best performance for last. Arnold went the distance and gave up only four hits in the 1-0 shutout win. Just as impressive was a defensive play that he and Hayes Heinecke completed in the second inning. With the bases loaded and two outs, Red Devil speedy leadoff hitter Marcellus Campbell hit a grounder in the hole between first and second. Heinecke ranged to his right and made a perfect throw to a covering Arnold just ahead Campbell for the third out. It was a championship caliber play at a championship defining moment.
As often happens, the player who made the stellar defensive play to end the prior inning leads off the next, and Arnold drilled a hard-hit ball just outside the reach of the Red Devil shortstop for a leadoff single. Tyler Courtney belted a double to left center, and Heinecke hit a sacrifice fly for the only run the Panthers needed. Arnold finished the postseason 3-0 with a 1.61 ERA against playoff-level competition.
Just needing one more win to close out Loganville, Coach Moseley went with Jack Moore to replicate the magic from March against the Red Devils. The Panthers took the lead in the third inning when Cole Gilley led off with a single, moved up on a perfect sacrifice by Kyle Evert, and scored on a Brian Port two-out hit.
The Red Devils had now gone 16 innings against Panther pitching without a run for the season, but would break the ice with two runs in the bottom of the third. Red Devil catcher and Tennessee signee Morgan Copeland roped a leadoff double that turned out to be a huge series momentum swing. The Red Devils scratched out three runs and took a 3-1 lead into the seventh. The Panthers put the tying runs on base but could not score and suffered their first loss at home for the season setting up the Thursday afternoon deciding game.
For the first time this season, the nine Starr’s Mill seniors faced the reality of an elimination game. The Red Devils started lefthanded pitcher and Georgia State signee Seth Clarke against senior Will Evans.
The Panthers broke out to an early lead again with a run scoring on an error and Evert crushing a pitch against the wall in right center for a two-run triple. Bolstered by the lead, the Panther crowd was electric.
The Red Devils fought back with three consecutive hits in the fourth to tie the game 3-3. Heinecke was brought in for relief in the fifth and pitched two perfect innings.
Port and Gilley led off the fifth with back-to-back singles, and the Panthers seemed to be in business. However, a double play and ground out ended the inning and took a bit of the air from the Panther sails.
Copeland led off the seventh for the Red Devils and hit another double that changed the complexion of the game. The Red Devil offense exploded to plate six runs in the 7th inning to take a commanding 9-3 lead.
The Panthers showed fight by getting two runners on in the bottom half, but the hole was too deep, and the season ended on a ground out to short.
Losing an elimination game is fraught with emotion. The players, nine of whom will graduate in less than a week just a few steps from the baseball field, went from leading early to tied up to losing, all within about a 45-minute period. Suddenly, it’s over, from one extreme to another, and raw emotion replaces the competitive spirit because there is nothing else to play for. When the Panther Nation stops to reflect on the 2017 season, they will focus on the success, on the wins, and on the moments added to the legacy. Most will play again next year, the returning players in their Starr’s Mill jerseys and many with college jerseys on. The season did not end where they wanted it to, but it is hard to describe it as anything else less than magical.