Tuesday, March 25, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Red Devils almost earn a big upset

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville baseball team’s four-game winning streak came to an end Monday in the Gulf Coast Classic hosted by Gulf Shores High School in Alabama. The 32-team field includes teams from seven states, and Jacksonville drew Tuscaloosa-Hillcrest in the first round. Hillcrest won 1-0, but Jacksonville coach Larry Burrows wasn’t down about his team’s performance – especially the performance on the mound by junior Derek St. Clair.

“Derek was awesome on the mound,” Burrows said. “He gave up a leadoff single and didn’t give up another hit until the sixth inning.”

Making the effort more impressive is that Hillcrest is Alabama’s No. 5 overall ranked team from the state’s largest classification. The Patriots are already 22-4 this season and fresh off a 12-8 win over the No. 13 team in the nation, DeSoto Central. Arkansas rules only allow teams a total of 25 regular-season games. The loss dropped Jacksonville’s record to 4-3.

Hillcrest’s lone run came in the first inning after leadoff hitter Keith Holcombe beat out a ground ball to shortstop for an infield single. Holcombe, 6-foot-4, 214 pounds, has already signed a football scholarship with the University of Alabama as an outside linebacker, and had dozens of baseball scouts on hand Monday evaluating his draft worthiness.

He then stole second and third base on pitches in the dirt and scored on a sacrifice grounder to second base with one out.

After that, the Patriots scarcely threatened to score. Riley Nix got a base hit in the sixth inning for the Patriots, but St. Clair picked him off at first base.

Hillcrest also boasts prospects in pitcher Braxton McFerrin and shortstop J.C. Frederick. Frederick made two base-hit saving plays in the gap. One play robbed Jacksonville leadoff hitter Courtland McDonald, and another robbed St. Clair.

“He just made two plays in the gap where he threw them out at first on backhand snags,” Burrows said. “And those two are really the only two we have that run really well. He just made two outstanding plays.”

Even with those two hits stolen, the Red Devils out-hit Hillcrest 4-2. The Red Devils threatened in the last inning, loading the bases with two outs, but were unable to get the timely hit.

Catcher Greg Jones went 3 for 3 to lead Jacksonville offensively. James Tucker got the other base hit for the Red Devils.

“We didn’t get many on base, but we only struck out three times,” Burrows said. “We swung the bats pretty well. We put it in play. They’re just really good.”

Jacksonville faced Heritage Christian High School of Indianapolis on Tuesday after Leader deadlines. They will play McGill-Toolen Catholic of Mobile, Ala., on Wednesday. Depending on results in those games, the Red Devils could move into bracket play on Thursday.

“We could still get into it if we win out, but losing that first one probably hurt our chances,” Burrows said.