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Mustang baseball ends season in first round of state
Mustang Baseball Seniors
South Effingham High School honored its senior baseball players on Monday, April 17. Pictured from left are: No. 25 Nick Midock, No. 12 Avery Sikes, No. 11 Ethan Atkins, No. 10 Chace Funderburk, No. 1 Turner Motes, No. 6 Maddox Shiell, No. 3 Aaron Benton, No. 15 Owen Barton, and No. 18 Kaleb Johnson. Not pictured is No. 7 Zach Zorbo. (Photo by Gilbert Miller/Effingham Herald.)

By Donald Heath

Special for the Effingham Herald

In the first inning of South Effingham's first-round Class 6A state playoff baseball matchup with Tift County, Mustang Aaron Benton's long drive bounced off the top of the left-field wall and back into the playing field.

"One inch would have made that difference," SEHS coach Jesse Osborne said.

In a season seemingly filled with bounces going the other way, the Mustangs were swept by the sixth-ranked Blue Devils 7-2 and 2-1 in the best-of-three series.

Within eight days, SEHS lost to its county rival, saw a potential region championship slip away and had its dream of a lengthy postseason run dashed.

"There's life lessons here," Osborne said. "Things don't always work out the way you want."

South (18-13, a third-seed in Region 2) hoped to ride its experienced pitching this season. But starter Avery Sikes missed almost two months with a shoulder injury. And late in the season, in the final game of the series against Effingham County, No. 1 starter Kaleb Johnson suffered a broken hand after getting hit by a pitch and was out for the season.

As a sophomore, Johnson displayed his dependability when he shut out Richmond Hill 1-0 to secure a region championship.

This season, he tamed offensive-minded Glynn Academy 3-0.

"In our minds, every time Kaleb stepped on the mound we were going to win," Osborne said. "That was a big blow to the team."

Without pitching consistency, the Mustangs' play wavered. SEHS beat every team in the region, but also lost to every team in the region.

After mauling last-place Lakeside 12-1, two days later the Mustangs lost to the Panthers 13-11. Against sixth-place Grovetown, SEHS lost 3-0, then scored 13 runs against the Panthers the next day.

"The kids worked hard, but we could never catch our stride and keep it going," Osborne said.

Behind Sikes' no-hit pitching through five innings, the Mustangs held a 1-0 advantage against Tift County in the second game. But the Blue Devils scored a run in the sixth and another in the seventh to rally.

"At South, we want to do more than just make the playoffs," Osborne said. "It's always been that way since I can remember. Tift County was a very, very good team. I was proud of how we battled. We had numerous runners on second base, but we couldn't get that one big hit. It was one of those years."

Osborne will lose nine seniors but has a talented group coming back led by pitcher/third baseman Dru Futch, shortstop Dalton Redmond and outfielder Ty Cantaline.

"I told the juniors this is their team now," Osborne said. "I'm excited about the group coming back."