No. 2 Ardrey Kell stops No. 1 Providence in meeting of area’s top baseball teams

Sean Thomas added an important chapter to his coaching story Saturday. He beat his teacher.

Thomas left Providence nearly two years ago after a lengthy stint as assistant coach under Danny Hignight, taking over the head coaching position at Ardrey Kell.

He left a position with one coaching legend to replace another, as Hal Bagwell had resigned at Ardrey Kell to coach in South Carolina.

Ardrey Kell’s first three meetings with Providence – two last season, and the third a week ago – ended with a Panthers victory.

But a combination of outstanding defense, timely hitting and solid pitching enabled the Knights, ranked No. 2 in The Charlotte Observer’s Sweet 16, to blank No. 1 Providence 4-0 in an afternoon game Saturday that drew about 1,000 fans.

“Yeah, that’s a first for me,” said Thomas, who has coached Ardrey Kell to SoMeck 4A regular-season championships in his first two seasons with the Knights. “Danny is one of my best friends, my mentor.

“I’ve learned a lot from him. They got us the first time this year. It feels good to win this one.”

Thomas’ record at Ardrey Kell is 38-13, including 21-1 in conference games. He said this year’s squad, which is 18-6, has shown the ability to make a deep run in the playoffs. But, he added, the Knights have battled inconsistency.

“We’ve had some good games and some not-so-good games,” Thomas said.

He said his team didn’t play well Friday night, in a 5-3 loss to Butler, which is battling Providence for the Southwestern 4A title.

“But our guys responded in a big game today,” Thomas said. “That’s what we’ve done a couple times this year.”

Two big plays defined his team’s victory Saturday over a Providence team which started slow this season after a 2022 state championship run, but had climbed to No. 1 this week in the Sweet 16 rankings.

The first was a two-run single that broke a scoreless tie in the top of the fourth. With the bases loaded, junior Cade Sabin gashed a sharp drive that tipped off the glove of a Providence infielder and rolled into right field.

A third run scored on a fielders’ choice, and a Brady Marconi sacrifice fly in the fifth inning scored Jacob Kirby, who had doubled.

Kirby was responsible for the other big play, which came in the bottom of the fourth.

Providence put runners on first and second with two outs, and Jack Ryan hit a sharp grounder between first and second. Kirby, playing second base, leaped to his left, grabbed the ball, and tossed it to first base for the third out.

The Panthers threatened one other time, as Luke Wolff slammed a two-out double off the right-field wall in the bottom of the sixth and Sam Dansky reached on a walk.

But freshman Jack Leach came in to pitch and got the final out. In the seventh, Leach struck out the final two Providence batters to end the game.

Thomas said that unlike last season, when unbeaten Providence was the behemoth of the baseball world in the Charlotte area, the battle for the top spot is more open this spring. He pointed to teams like his squad, Providence, Olympic, Myers Park, Butler, Hough, Hopewell and Lake Norman, among others.

“It really will come down to who plays a complete game, from inning 1 through 7,” Thomas said.

Hignight said his team is headed in the right direction, with the conference tournament on the schedule next week and then the state playoffs beginning May 9.

“We had some trouble at the plate during the first month of the season,” he said, referring to the Panthers’ 3-4 start. “We lost a couple tough games. But we’re playing a lot better now.

“This was a tough game to lose today. But we’re headed in the right direction now.

“I’m looking forward to the playoffs.”

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle

PHOTOS: Ardrey Kell vs. Providence baseball