By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON —Any silent doubt about South Effingham’s ability to advance in the Class AAAAAA state baseball playoffs Thursday ended with one swing from Noah Hollis.
His towering no-doubt drive sailed over the left-field fence and gave the Mustangs a wild 9-7 extra-inning victory over Lee County in the third and deciding game of the best-of-three series.
The home run, seemingly a divine gift from the heavens, allowed SEHS to remain at home against Pope in the Elite Eight, starting with a doubleheader Tuesday and, if necessary, a third game on May 12.
“Noah is prime time,” Mustangs coach Todd Eubanks said. “He’s a kid who wants to be at that plate in big situations. He doesn’t mind being in the moment.”
The ninth inning set up nicely for the junior third baseman who batted ninth in the lineup. With one out, Maddox Shiell walked and was bunted to second by Carson Spendiff.
A single might have won the game, but Hollis’ hit erased any doubt.
“No sir. I bat flipped it and I was on the moon,” Hollis said about a celebration that started during his first step out of the batter’s box.
He finished his trot around the bases by diving on home plate and overjoyed teammates followed suit by diving on Hollis.
In contrast, Lee County players laid motionless on the turf. In a true gesture of sportsmanship, several SEHS players left their celebration to console the Trojans.
“It was a well-played series by both teams," Eubanks said. "(Lee County) has been a staple in 6A baseball. We’re the new guys in 6A and we’re making some waves and now we’ll give the county a chance to see some more baseball.”
South’s resiliency received a stern test from Lee County, the No. 3 seed from Region 1. The Trojans won the first game of the series 5-2 by rallying for four runs after two were out in the seventh inning.
The Mustangs evened the series with a 2-0 victory in Game 2 behind Kaleb Johnson’s three-hit shutout.
But SEHS needed a Game 3 starter after Nick Duke suffered a knee injury in a collision at first base earlier in the series.
Up stepped sophomore right-hander Avery Sikes, whose steady performance in a rare start had the Mustangs ahead 7-3 in the seventh inning.
But Lee got two runners on base and Johnson, who had allowed just one run in his previous 22 innings, was summoned for the save. Johnson walked a batter, then hung a breaking ball and Cooper Ray tied the game with a dramatic two-out, two-strike grand slam.
Lee County had the potential go-ahead baserunners in scoring position later in the seventh inning and again in the eighth, but reliever Hunter Walthour pitched out of jams.
“We’re a grindy team and we’ll never give up, no matter the situation,” Hollis said. “We all got together and said, ‘That’s it. They’re not scoring any more runs.” ”
Two tense extra innings followed. The Mustangs witnessed more bad news after seeing left fielder Shane Chapman carried off the field after crashing into the fence in foul territory trying to run down a fly ball.
Chapman suffered an elbow injury and his arm was iced, but he returned to the dugout to cheer on his teammates.
After the game, he said he would know more about the injury later in the week.
“We have tough, gritty kids,” Eubanks said. “We’re not going to wow anybody on paper. But we play as a team and the kids play for each other and they love each other and you’re just not going to beat that."