The Fuquay-Varina High School baseball team has returned to the top of the heap.
It took a three-run rally in the top of the seventh inning, but the Bengals defeated rival Holly Springs 4-2 on Friday to clinch the Tri-Nine 4A Conference’s regular-season title – their first since 2006.
Fuquay-Varina improved to 18-3 overall and 13-1 in the conference, all while avenging a 10-8 loss to Holly Springs a few weeks ago. The Hawks emerged 9-5 in the Tri-Nine and 17-5 overall.
“It’s been a little longer than we have liked,” said F-V coach Milton Senter said of the program’s first conference crown in seven years. “Our rally in the seventh was not the first time that’s happened, but quite honestly, that’s the best pitching we’ve faced all year. He (Brian Fortier) was exceptionally good and I tip my hat to him. Our guys just got through it and we scarped out enough to win.”
Fortier, the Hawks’ tall right-hander, frustrated the Bengals for six innings, allowing just one hit – a double in the gap by Nick Stuart that scored Brett Daniels in the top of the fourth.
Holly Springs held a 2-1 lead entering the top of the seventh. That’s when the Bengals rediscovered their hitting stroke.
Stuart led off with a two-strike single to right field and advanced to second base on a wild pitch. Perry Gray walked with two outs and leadoff batter Garrett Suggs also walked to load the bases.
Scott then provided a clutch single to left field, bringing in Stuart and Gray with the tying and go-ahead runs, respectably, making it 3-2 Fuquay.
Fortier was lifted in favor of reliever Andrew Elwell, who gave up a double to D.J. Burt as Suggs raced home for the visitors’ third run of the frame.
Senter said his own pitchers – starter Jordan Bissette and Gray – were solid in holding the Hawks to set the stage for Fuquay’s rally.
“Our own pitchers did an outstanding job tonight,” he said. “They’ve only allowed eight earned runs in their last 11 ball games. They kept us right there and we got a couple of timely hits with people on base, and our defense was good except for the one play at first (a pickoff) but our boys picked him (Suggs) up.
“We fought through for a tough win against a very good team.”
Holly Springs made it interesting in the bottom of the seventh. Mike Sconzo singled with one out and moved to second after a walk to Fortier. With two chances remaining, the Hawks were not able to come up with the hit as Gray coaxed a fly-out to center and a strikeout to seal the title.
Fuquay came into the contest with a three-game lead over the Hawks and only needed to win one of its last three league games to clinch the top spot in the Tri-Nine.
“It was nice to go ahead and do it tonight. Now we can pay for fun for the next three games and try to keep our focus and get better as we go into the playoffs. We don’t have the pressure of knowing we have to win,” Senter said. “That makes it a little easier and we can play a little looser.”
Holly Springs coach Rod Whitesell was disappointed that his squad came up short but praised the Bengals.
“I don’t know what happened (in the seventh),” he said. “It was a well-played game by both teams and they came through with the hits at the right time after we walked too many people.
“Our team has a lot of fight in them and we’re going to compete and play. We don’t feel like one run is ever enough to beat us. It would have been nice if we could have made them wait at least one more game to celebrate, but congratulations to them – they’re a very good baseball team.”
Fortier and Bissette were sharp early on and both made the plays defensively for the first three innings.
The Bengals took a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth on Stuart’s extra-base hit that plated Daniels, who was hit by a pitch and took second after Nick Yarbrough walked. Holly Springs tied it in the bottom of the fourth when Sconzo doubled and scored on a two-out single by Andy Wantz.
Fortier’s RBI single brought in Elwell (who’d tripled) after Sconzo reached on an error with two outs. The Hawks had a golden chance to add to their lead when Ryan Byrd reached on an infield single to load the bases, but Bissette struck out the next batter to avoid any further damage.
The home team put a runner (Trey Cobb) on second with one out after his single and a sacrifice bunt, but Gray struck out the next two batters – setting the stage for the Bengals’ comeback.