Outdueled in opener
Northern Vance head coach Benji Nelson has been saying it since Nate Arrington was a freshman: When Arrington takes the mound, the Vikings have a shot.
Northern's ace right-hander kept his team in it one last time Tuesday in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 3-A playoffs at South Johnston and the senior nearly leveled the score at the plate in the sixth inning.
But the Trojans' right-handed starter, Joe Johnson, got out of the frame and the game unscathed, tossing a complete-game 3-0 shutout on a warm evening in Four Oaks.
"We've done a pretty good job this year of putting the ball in play and winning some ballgames," said Nelson. "It just didn't happen. Nate threw well. He kept us in the game."
Johnson, the Trojans' No. 1, allowed four hits and struck out 13.
Down 3-0, fourth-seeded Northern (10-11) put runners on the corners in the sixth and with two outs and a full count, Arrington drove a Johnson pitch to the wall in left-center field. It looked like the low, sharply-hit fly might have a chance to exit Bruce Coats Field, but South Johnston center fielder Austin Fowler got under it for the inning's final out.
"I guess we were probably 10 feet short of tying this thing up with that one swing," said Nelson. "If that happens, then that's a big momentum-changer right there."
No. 2 South Johnston (14-9) advances to face either top-seeded Western Alamance (20-5) or No. 4 Western Guilford (8-15) in the second round.
Johnson, batting left-handed, had half of the Trojans' hits, finishing 3-for-3 with two home runs that just cleared the fence. The sophomore knocked a two-run shot to right-center, the shortest part of the field (310 feet), in the first inning. Northern right fielder Kyland Bullock nearly robbed Johnson of the round-tripper, but couldn't keep the ball in his glove after jumping at the fence to attempt the grab.
Johnson took another one out in the third inning to make it 3-0.
Arrington went the distance, striking out seven batters.
"I thought it was a great high school baseball game, very well-pitched from both sides," said South Johnston head coach Keith Durham. "We get a couple of hits to fall in the right spots, a couple of things just bounce our way and other than that, it's a tossup. It was just toe-to-toe for most of the night, a pitchers' duel."
Bullock, Arrington, Jabe Montgomery, and Tabrian Scott had the hits for the Vikings, who made their third consecutive postseason appearance.
Northern finished fourth in the Big Eight Conference after losing six senior starters from last season.
Arrington, one of three Viking seniors, closed a successful career just as he began it as a promising freshman.
"Nate Arrington steps on the mound — I don't care who you're playing, he's always going to give you that chance," Nelson. "Nate is a competitor and he wants the ball. If he could have pitched every game this year, he would have. No questions asked."
Nelson said his team did a "heck of a job" this season to finish .500 in the league and likes the group he has returning in 2015.
Kevonte Hanks and Connor McFalls join Arrington in the senior class.
"What those three brought to the team this year was big. They carried us," Nelson said. "Those are three guys that myself and the Vikings baseball team are really going to miss next year."
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