Back to the semis: Voyager wins 1-A quarterfinal thriller
“Damn this is fun!”
Veteran Voyager Academy coach Pete Shankle had pulled his team around him behind third base and those were his opening post-game words — verbatim — to the 21-4 Vikings who’d just rallied twice to beat Martin County’s Riverside High School 5-3 at Southern High School Wednesday night.
The win lifted Voyager into the best two-of-three state semifinal round for the second time in the two-year history of the program. The Vikings will host Midway (24-4) in the opener of that Eastern Regional 1-A championship series on Friday at 7, also at Southern.
Game two will be Saturday night at 7 at Midway and game three, if needed, will be played at Southern on Monday at 7 p.m.
Voyager rode the strong right arm of junior ace Chad Sykes (10-1) and both used — and was abused — by aggressive baserunning in pulling out a win just when the chances of that were beginning to appear bleak.
The Vikings did it despite managing only five hits off junk-tossing Knights righthander Kyle Leggett, who kept Voyager at bay most of the night with a baffling array of off-speed breaking balls and the occasional change-up fastball.
His pitches came in so slowly than many in the crowd were thinking he was throwing knuckleballs. Shankle said that wasn’t the case, it was just an odd-looking breaking ball. Sykes, who went 1 for 3 at the plate and scored the tying run in the fifth and the fifth run in the sixth, guessed that Leggett was throwing a variation on a knuckle-curve.
Whatever the case, Leggett kept Voyager off balance while his offense got to Sykes for a run on a leadoff double and an RBI single by Lawrence Smith in the fourth and another on a pair of singles around an errant pickoff throw by Sykes past first for a 2-0 lead in the top of the fifth.
Meanwhile, the Vikings had one baserunner reach in each of the first four innings but saw rallies cut off by a pair of Riverside double plays. Voyager broke through in the bottom of the fifth.
Trailing by a pair Caleb Trueheart led it off with a walk and Sykes followed with a one-out scorer through the third baseman into left. John Sanders, who was 2 for 2 with a pair of walks, drove in Trueheart and Hunter Coates lashed a shot past third and into the leftfield corner to plate Sykes with the tying run.
Loy Stone was walked intentionally to load the bases and Coltyn Faucette’s ground out drove in Sanders with the go-ahead score.
The lead didn’t last.
Stone couldn’t get the handle on a grounder in the shortstop hole on the leadoff batter in the sixth and Sykes walked the next batter on four pitches, putting runners on first and second with none out and drawing a mound visit from Shankle.
Sykes regrouped, striking out cleanup hitter Leggett on a nifty slow curve that froze him at the plate after Leggett failed to lay down a sacrifice bunt on two prior strikes.
When Sykes got the second out on a fly to right, it appeared he might escape unscathed. But Riverside pulled a trick delayed steal, allowing Lawrence Smith at first to be picked off. Sykes had him and ran towards him, all the while watching Mathin Ange, the runner at third. After several feints towards Smith, Sykes wheeled and threw behind Ange, who was well off third.
Sykes’ throw got past third for an error allowing Ange to score the tying run. The Vikings managed to minimize the damage when leftfielder Coltyn Faucette’s throw to Stone caught Smith who was trying to get to third.
“We worked on that play for 30 minutes or so in practice yesterday and still messed it up,” Shankle said.
But Voyager wasn’t done.
The winning rally began with two outs and none on in the bottom of the sixth when No. 9 hitter Kiki Kornegay singled and took second on an error. He went to third on a wild pitch as Sykes walked and Leggett was done.
With Ryan White on in relief, a bad throw to second by catcher Matt Wisniewski on a copycat delayed steal by Voyager plated Kornegay with the go-ahead run and Sykes then scored on a wild pitch by White for the fifth run.
And that was all Sykes and the Vikings would need.
Sykes, who’d struck out a low — for him — three batters in six innings, found another gear in the top of the seventh and fanned all three batters he faced to close out the win.
“I knew in that last inning that they couldn’t (be allowed to) score,” Sykes said about his domination in the seventh. “I was mad about that pickoff throw to third. My teammates had my back after that error and I wasn’t going to let them down.”
Looking back at the comeback, Shankle said it didn’t surprise him. “One of my assistant coaches challenged (our players’) toughness earlier this season,” Shankle said. “I can trace our success to that day. We showed our toughness tonight.”
NOTES — Voyager beat Riverside in the state quarterfinals last year as well, 1-0, on an errant throw in the bottom of the seventh ... Midway beat Dixon in the other half of the bracket Wednesday, to advance to the semis. Dixon was the opponent in the semifinals last year. ... With Sykes out of the rotation for a few days, Voyager’s likely starter in the semifinal opener would be Stone (8-2), but he’s battling arm soreness and Shankle said he’ll take it day by day before making any decisions. ... Shankle said the fact that his two top hitters — Stone and Sykes — went a combined 1 for 5 at the plate, was offset by the efforts of others. “Credit goes to the other guys in the lineup,” Shankle said.
Voyager 5, Riverside 3
Riverside 000 111 0 — 3 5 2
Voyager 000 032 x — 5 5 3
Kyle Leggett, Ryan White (6th) and Wisniewski; Sykes and Coates. W—Sykes (10-1), L—Leggett. Leading hitters — Riverside, Mathin Ange 1-3 (2B), Lawrence Smith 1-2 (RBI), Brandon Chesson 1-2 (RBI); Voyager Academy, John Sanders 2-2 (RBI), Hunter Coates 1-2 (2B, RBI).
Records — Riverside 22-4, Voyager Academy 21-4.