At long last, A.C. Flora had its home opener, its regular season opener and its Region 5-3A opener in one neat package on Tuesday at Falcon Field.
Andy Hallett’s team, ranked No. 1 in 3A and fresh from a 3-1, runner-up finish at the International Paper Classic tournament in Georgetown, celebrated the beginning of the serious campaign with a 3-1 win over Chapin.
Pitchers Player Loving, Matt Wallace and David Houser allowed seven Chapin hits and combined for 10 strikeouts and two walks. Southpaw Loving started and went 4.2 innings before giving way to Wallace who pitched into the seventh. Houser came from behind the plate to get the final two outs without incident to pick up the save. Loving surrendered a run in the top of the first, but was touched for only three more hits the rest of the way. He fanned seven Eagles without issuing a free pass.
“It was a good way to start the region season,” said Hallett. “We played well in Georgetown. We only had one error in the four games. I think the cool, damp weather caused Player to hit the wall there. It’s too bad but he really threw the ball well up to that point. Matt and David came in and got the job done.”
Flora got all the runs it would need in the bottom of the first. States Clawson drove in Schroder with the first run on a ground out. Madison Stokes then delivered a two-out RBI single to right field, plating Jake Lewis with what proved to be the game-winning run. ACF added an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth on a perfectly executed squeeze bunt by Everett Eynon that cleared the way home for pinch runner Jamey Dye.
Chapin had scoring opportunities after leadoff man Cole Morris opened the game with a single and eventually scored the first run of the game on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Brett Auckland. But the Eagles could not deliver the clutch hit again.
“We had our chances, but couldn’t get the runners in,” said Chapin manager Scott McLeod. “That’s baseball. Give Flora’s pitchers the credit. They made the pitches they had to make.”
Eagle starter Nick Beline struggled a bit early, but found the groove in the third inning. The veteran right-hander retired eight of nine batters before being lifted after Stokes reached base on an error as the leadoff hitter in the sixth. The Falcons’ third run (unearned) was charged to Beline.
“Nick certainly pitched well enough to win,” said McLeod.
In the end, Chapin stranded 10 runners on the bases. The key failure came in the fourth. John Hughes and Matt Charpia opened the frame with back-to-back singles, and both moved up a base on Mel Kitchens’ sacrifice bunt. But the Eagles came up empty, thanks to a great defensive play by Flora’s Connor Desmond in right field. Desmond made an eye-opening grab of a sinking liner by Tom Carlson for the second out. Desmond that flagged a routine fly for the third out.
“That was a big, big play,” said McLeod of Desmond’s great garb. “It looked like a hit all the way, but the kid got a good jump and picked that ball right off the top of the grass.”
The Eagles (5-2, 1-2) got off to a 5-0 start, but have now lost two in a row in region play.
“We’re not out of it by any means,” said McLeod. “We won the region last season with four losses. We just need to get settled again.”
A.C. Flora outlook
The Falcons lost six seniors but only three starters to graduation a year ago off a team that won 20 games and came within one game of reaching the state championship series.
“We’re young and old (experienced) at the same time,” said Hallett. “I like my guys.”
The key seniors in the mix are mound ace Loving and catcher Houser, who is considered to be the among the elite defensive catchers nationally in the Class of 2012. He has committed to play at Tennessee.
Loving heads a deep staff that also features Wallace, Lewis, freshman Donald Gillespie, Davis Funderburk, Daniel Walker and Houser.
Returning in the field are Houser, Lewis at first base, Gillespie (who moved from third base to shortstop), Shroder Carlton and States Clawson.
Graduation leveled a harder hit on the Eagles, where only Beline returns on the mound.
Catcher Zach Haralambis, third baseman Ty Stoudemire and shortstop Morris are the only other returning starters. Beline plays in the outfield when not on the hill.
“We lost a number of very good players, but this team is playing well,” said McLeod. “We’re still trying to find the right combinations.”