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Johnson, Mustangs blank Wildcats in series finale
Mustangs celebrate
The Mustangs hoist the Region 2-AAAAAA championship trophy after defeating the Wildcats on Friday. - photo by Photo by Gilbert Miller
Kaleb wanted the ball tonight and it was probably his best pitching performance of the year. He stayed within himself and kept the ball down. Give a lot of credit to my assistants Jesse Osborne and Jason Shiell for calling a great game
South Effingham coach Todd Eubanks

By Donald Heath

Special for the Effingham Herald

RICHMOND HILL — The biggest moment of the baseball season wasn’t too big for the South Effingham Mustangs Friday night, much less their 5-foot-8, 150-pound sophomore righthander Kaleb Johnson.

“All day long, my mindset was, we’re going to bring this home,” Johnson said. “We haven’t won a championship around here in a while and we’re going to set this free the next couple of years.”

Amid a crescendo of drama stirred by a winner-take-all night, Johnson and his teammates defeated Richmond Hill 1-0 to claim the Region 2-AAAAAA championship — the Mustangs’ first region baseball title since 2007.

SEHS (22-8, 13-5) heads to the Class AAAAAA state tournament as the region’s top seed and will play host to Heritage, Conyers in a best-of-three, first-round series starting with a doubleheader Thursday.

“I’m on top of the world right now, but we have to keep on climbing,” said Mustangs pitcher/first baseman Nick Milbrandt, shortly after the game-ending dogpile celebration subsided to hugs and photos.

Who could have seen this coming? A team with just one senior in the starting lineup Friday night picking itself up after beginning region play in a higher classification swept by Glynn Academy.

Picking itself up after losing to Richmond Hill 13-4 just 48 hours earlier.

“We never lost focus of the bigger picture,” said senior Nick Duke, who singled in the game’s only run in the third inning against Wildcats’ starter Leighton Finley, his friend and travel ball teammate.

“We knew stepping up to 6A was a big step and (the sweep) by Glynn took us by surprise,” Duke said. “We had to get our heads right. Every day after school we worked harder than ever and that got us to this point.”

Duke’s hit, preceded by Aaron Benton’s double, got the Mustangs the lead and a gritty effort from Johnson and the defense made it stick through seven tension-filled innings.

Johnson struck out eight, walked four and surrendered four hits. Richmond Hill (15-14, 12-6) stranded eight runners, two at third base.

In the fourth inning, Johnson walked the first three batters and the slim lead appeared in peril.

“I wasn’t worried about the guys on base,” Johnson said. “I just thought, let’s get the next couple of outs and if a couple of runs cross the plate, we have the bats to get them back.”

The Mustangs never had to consider retaliation. Johnson pitched out of trouble with a strikeout, a lineout and a flyball.

In the fifth inning, shortstop Carson Spendiff took away a hit with an over-the-shoulder catch in left field. In the sixth inning, with runners on first and second and one out, third baseman Noah Hollis made a diving stop on a sharply hit grounder and threw from his knees to force a runner at second base.

Johnson pitched out of the jam by inducing a slow roller to first for the final out.

“Kaleb wanted the ball tonight and it was probably his best pitching performance of the year,” SEHS coach Todd Eubanks said. “He stayed within himself and kept the ball down. Give a lot of credit to my assistants Jesse Osborne and Jason Shiell for calling a great game.”

Eubanks deserved credit as well. The Mustangs made it to the Class 5A Final Four at state in 2016, but had slipped to 17-12 and 16-16 with two first-round exits at state before he was hired.

In his first year, SEHS was 17-15 and last year 10-3 before COVID-19 hit.

“When (former principal) Dr. (Mark) Winters and Jeff Faith and Ron Womack hired me four years ago, they tasked me with a challenge and now we get to hang a region banner up for these kids,” said Eubanks, whose squad won 13 of its last 15 region games this season. “We took the program another step and we’re not done.”

The Mustangs’ next challenge, Heritage, Conyers, finished fourth in Region 3 with a 9-16 overall record.

Johnson said the same goal the team took throughout the regular season can work at state.

“Strive for the best, work hard and get through the year,” he said. “Obviously, we got through the year pretty good.”