Vikings hold off Wolfpack to advance to state championship series
May 11—VALDOSTA — Despite a nearly an hour and 15-minute lightning delay, the Lowndes Vikings (27-13) defeated the North Paulding Wolfpack 4-3 Wednesday night — clinching a berth in the Class 7A state championship series.
For head coach Ryan Page and his Vikings, the chance to play for a state championship is sweet but doing so in Truist Park — the home of the Atlanta Braves — is a proverbial cherry on top.
"It means everything," Lowndes head coach Ryan Page said. "It means everything to these boys. Since they were little children, this is all they've dreamed about — going to Truist and having this opportunity to play in this place. I'm so happy for them.
"Regardless of what happens, obviously we want to fight and come back with a state title but to go play in that place and just have that opportunity, I'm just so excited for them."
At 8:45 p.m., the game was suspended due to lightning prior to the start of the bottom of the seventh inning with the Vikings leading 4-3.
At 10:13 p.m., the storm siren sounded — allowing both teams to return to the field to warm up and finish the final inning.
Lowndes reliever Noah Thigpen, who came on after starter Caleb Thornton gave up three runs in the bottom of the fifth inning, appeared to say a prayer with his back to home plate before taking the mound to finish the game.
Thigpen struck out Bryce Tibbitts swinging, then quickly got Cade Cox to ground out for the second out.
With a raucous crowd on its feet inside the ballpark, Thigpen struck out Payton Doyle for the final out — sending Noel George Field into pandemonium.
"I just told the guys I'm going to let them try to hit the ball and just make the plays — we're three outs away from going to Truist Park," Thigpen said. "I had all the confidence in the world in my guys to make the plays behind me and we're going to Truist now.
"It's something you dream of your whole life, but once it happens, you really think about how blessed you are. Everybody doubted us and now it just feels good to come back and make it to Truist and have a shot to win state."
Though the lightning delay jeopardized the game's finish, the Vikings were unbothered by the potential for the game being postponed.
Had the delay persisted 37 more minutes, the game would have been called and since there was only the bottom of the seventh left to play, the Vikings would have been awarded the victory due to them having the lead and the game having reached complete game territory by rule.
"At that point in time, you're three outs away," Page said of the lightning delay. "There's not a huge message. There's nothing to say. We have a motto, we say we don't talk about it, we be about it and that's that opportunity. There it is right in front of you. The boys knew what they had to do.
"Thigpen was lights out there. He ramped it up a whole other notch right there at the end. I'm just so excited, man. My stomach's nice now. It feels like I can actually breathe now, so that's nice."
In the top of the fifth inning, a Jordan Hudson RBI single pushed Tate Sirmans home to give the Vikings a 2-0 lead.
After Coleman Lewis grounded into a fielder's choice for the second out of the inning, Thigpen came to the plate and promptly doubled on a fly ball to center field that brought Lewis and Cooper Melvin across to put Lowndes in front 4-0.
The lead seemed comfortable as the Vikings had neutralized a Wolfpack offense that had scored at least 10 runs in four straight games leading up to Wednesday night's semifinal series.
"Give the credit to our pitchers — Ashton (Bohler) threw an unbelievable game (in Game 1)," Page said. "We've been stressing all year — we don't have the high velocity arms, we've got to pitch and that's what he did tonight. He pitched. He mixed, he hit locations and kept those guys off balance.
"Caleb, there were a couple balls he left up tonight there. He probably got a little tired. Let's be honest, the emotions of this game, kids are gonna get a little tired a little earlier. A couple mistakes there (in the fifth), but take away the inning they got the three runs, our pitchers did am amazing job."
Cayden Sheffield shot a line drive into center field to bring two runs home and put Doyle in scoring position at third. On the next at-bat, Jake Epstein brought Doyle in on a sacrifice fly to left field to cut the deficit to 4-3, prompting Thigpen being summoned to stop the bleeding.
Thigpen, who served as the team's closer the last two seasons, was no stranger to the situation and proved as much when he struck out Nicholas Casanova to get out of the fifth.
"Last year, I was in the closing role all year so I got the experience coming into tight ballgames," Thigpen said. "I think it's just all about the experience. The more you put yourself in a tight spot, the more you'll succeed in it."
Cooper Melvin had a team-best two hits in four at-bats in Game 2. Thigpen, Tate Sirmans, Jordan Hudson, Coleman Lewis and Carson Page each had a hit in the win.
Despite being pulled in the bottom of the fifth, Thornton picked up the win for the Vikings. He pitched 4 1/3 innings — allowing seven hits, three earned runs and a walk to go along with five strikeouts.
Thigpen threw 25 pitches over 2 2/3 innings, recording three strikeouts with no hits or walks.
Game 1 starter Ashton Bohler pitched a gem in the opener, throwing a one-hitter in the Vikings' 3-0 shutout of the Wolfpack.
Bohler struck out four with three walks over seven innings — finishing with exactly 100 pitches thrown on the day.
The Vikings went ahead 2-0 early behind a home run to center field by Qrey Lott and a walk issued to Carson Page that brought in Cooper Melvin in the bottom of the first inning.
The Vikings added another run in the bottom of the second as Jordan Hudson singled on a line drive to center field to bring in Lott for the final margin.
Sirmans and Hudson led the way with two hits each for the Vikings while Lott scored two runs.
Lowndes travels to Atlanta to meet Parkview (32-6) in the Class 7A state championship series at Truist Park Tuesday, May 16.
"We had to battle for it and it wasn't easy," Lott said. "Last year, we got cut short in the Elite Eight. That showed us we worked out even harder this year just to prove our point that we have the ability. It means a lot to us.
"It's a different type of feeling. This is my first state I'm going to and I'm doing it with my boys so it's a different type of feeling. I love each and every one of these boys and I can't explain that feeling."
Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.