Lumber River defeated previously unbeaten Pitt County twice on Monday in the finals of the state championship, solidifying the program’s first-ever berth in the Southeastern Regional Tournament in Ocala, Fla., the first week of August.
In the afternoon winner-take-all finale, Iron Eyes Locklear helped Lumber River clinch the title after scoring from second on a two-out, two-strike single to left center. Locklear’s sprint home gave his team a 4-3 win after Lumber River had tied the game during the previous inning on a wild pitch that launched out of play.
“I’ve been coaching 15 years and I’ve never seen a ball go up and over the backstop like it did there (in the sixth),” Lumber River coach Carl Nephew said. “I kind of knew we had a shot to win this thing after that in our final at-bat.”
An arsenal of arms — Austin Jones, Austin Locklear and Allen Strickland — out-dueled Pitt’s Peyton Ahlers in the decisive contest after Lumber River cruised to a 6-1 win to stave off elimination a few hours prior. Drew Armstrong and Mike Simmons provided punch out of the bullpen.
A pair of low-scoring wins in a day against a power-hitting program like Pitt was admirable says Nephew.
“I put that (first) loss against them on my shoulders,” he said. “I didn’t blame it on the kids. I should’ve made a pitching change earlier in that game and it came back to bite us. We turned it around and played like champions on Monday.”
Eleven of Lumber River’s 14 players are anchored in Purnell Swett High’s varsity and junior varsity baseball programs. One player attends Fairmont while two others don’t play at the prep level. A mix of speed, power and quality pitchers have helped this year’s 15U squad make history.
During the six-game swing in Holly Springs, Lumber River hit a tournament-high 16 home runs.
“At the beginning of this thing, I told the president of our organization that I really thought we had enough talent to win it,” Nephew said. “We just couldn’t be greedy and worry about playing time. We had to play as a team to win and that’s exactly what we’ve done so far. Roanoke Rapids coach told us that he’s never seen a lineup 1 through 9 as powerful as ours.”
Lumber River has a few days off before departing for the Sunshine State. A handful of wins in Central Florida results in a trip to the Babe Ruth World Series. With the turnaround being too quick for fundraisers, word-of-mouth is the next best thing.
“Trying to get money together for all these trips is always difficult,” Nephew said. “But any contributions help. Parents and friends are already pitching in. Most of these kids have never left the state of North Carolina so it’s a big deal for them to get to travel like this.”