Picking up where they left off: Lovelady continues torrid hitting in two-game sweep of North Hopkins

By BOBBY "BUTCH" BURNEY | News-Telegram Sports Editor

May 26, 2007 - LOVELADY - The Lovelady Lions picked up Friday where they left off on Thursday.

The Lions ended Game 1 of their suspended playoff series with the North Hopkins Panthers with a 14-3 win on Friday, then came back in Game 2 with a 10-0 victory.

Lovelady scored at least one run in nine of the 12 innings in the two-game series to decide the Class A, Region III semifinal champion. The Lions will play either Grapeland or Price Carlisle in the regional finals next week.

The Panthers (19-14), meanwhile, went further than any NHHS baseball team in the school's 65-year history after winning District 17-A.

"We had a good playoff run, but it ended against a better team and you can't hang your head about that," said NH head coach Brian Bymaster. "We had a good run, and Lovelady's worthy of what they did."

Lovelady combined for 25 hits and 24 runs in the two-game series, allowed just three earned runs and committed one error.

The first game of the series was suspended Thursday evening due to rain in the top of the fifth inning with Lovelady holding a 10-3 advantage. When play resumed on Friday, the Lions put up four more runs in the sixth inning to win the game by the 10-run rule.

After a 30-minute break before starting Game 2, Lovelady put up five more runs in the bottom of the first inning. North Hopkins couldn't muster enough offensively against Lovelady pitcher Colton LaRue, who scattered four hits over six innings, to make a comeback.

Lovelady had just four extra-base hits, but were aggressive on the base paths (stealing 11 bases and being caught twice), and only struck out twice in 12 innings. In addition, the Lions turned two double plays.

"They just continued to hit the ball where we weren't," Bymaster said. "It wasn't anything fancy, it was just base hit after base hit. They are a well-coached team, good-hitting team and very good defensively."

In the resumption of the first game, Lovelady padded its 10-3 lead in the sixth inning on an RBI single by LaRue and a two-run homer by Michael Rich.

The Panthers tried to regroup for the second game and started the top of the first off with a one-out single by Jeremy Dixon. but, LaRue worked his way out of that situation, and Lovelady continued hitting the ball in their half of the inning.

The Lions scored five runs, four of them earned off NH ace Bradley Ball, who was pitching for the second straight day. He worked three innings on Thursday before being lifted. The Lions wasted no time hitting the ball on Friday, as LaRue hit the first pitch of the inning up the middle for a single.

Richard Gunnels added an RBI single, Trent Joyner hit a two-run single and Travis Bitner drove in another run to put the Panthers in a 5-0 hole.

North Hopkins had opportunities to get on the scoreboard in both the third and fourth innings, but the Lovelady defense bailed LaRue out of trouble.

In the third, Dustin Clements and Jeremy Dixon each had one out singles, but the Lions turned a 1-4-6-3 double play on a ball that Ball hit off the pitcher's glove that bounced to the second baseman.

Then, in the fourth, Rickey Willis hit a single off the left field wall and Joe Smiddy followed with a walk. But, a 5-3 double play ended the inning for Lovelady.

LaRue then retired the last six batters in order over the final two innings.

For North Hopkins, Dixon went 2-for-3 to account for half of the team's hits.

Lovelady was paced by LaRue and Rich, who each had three hits, and D.J. Joyner, who drove in three runs with three hits and a walk.

"You've got to outplay a team like that because they're not going to beat themselves," Bymaster said. "We weren't able to outplay them. I wish them the best of luck."

Notes: Lovelady won District 23-A, and could end up playing the second-place team in the district, Grapeland, for the regional championship. Lovelady also beat the third-place team out of 23-A, Groveton, in the regional quarterfinals. ... Price Carlisle and Grapeland were tied, 4-4, in the bottom of the eighth inning on Thursday when their game was suspended due to rain. It is scheduled to continue at 1 p.m. today, probably in Jacksonville.

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