By BRET H. McCORMICK
The Pineville Rebels are back.
And they’re back in black.
For the second straight weekend, the Rebels faced elimination from the playoffs in their best-of-three series, this time rallying from a one-game deficit and knocking off Rapides Parish and District 2-5A rival Alexandria Senior High to lock up a berth in the Division I Select baseball semifinals in Sulphur.
No. 6 Pineville (23-12) rode a masterful performance on the mound from senior Brady Huffman in a 9-0 victory in Game 2 on Friday night, and less than 15 hours later, wearing the same black uniforms, they returned to ASH’s Don Boniol Field and steadily built a five-run lead before holding off a late seventh-inning rally to knock off the Trojans 6-3 on Saturday afternoon.
“It doesn’t get much sweeter than this – beating ASH to go to Sulphur,” said Pineville senior Alex Courville, who gave up four hits and one earned run in five-plus innings of work Saturday to pick up the victory.
The Rebels, ordinarily in cardinal red road jerseys, advanced to face No. 2 Jesuit at 2 p.m. on Thursday on Field 41 at Sulphur’s McMurry Park. Pineville coach Cullen Guerriero said the Rebels plan to wear their black tops once again on Thursday.
Huffman got the Rebels on the board in the first inning Saturday with a leadoff single and later scored on a wild pitch. They added three more in the second inning on three hits, including a double by junior catcher Matt Warden and an RBI single by junior right fielder Jayden Paul, a couple of bunts and a key throwing error.
ASH senior Drew Tomlin started to settle into a groove after that, but at the same time, Courville was having his way with the Trojans’ batting order.
Senior center fielder Chris Clark got the third-seeded Trojans (24-11) on the board in the fourth inning when he was hit by a pitch, stole second base and scored on two throwing errors. That run cut Pineville’s lead to 4-1, but the Trojans couldn’t take advantage of two walks and left two runners stranded.
The inability to get clutch hits was a key theme for the Trojans during their losses on Friday and Saturday.
“We had a lot of opportunities with runners in scoring position and couldn’t get a timely hit,” ASH coach Greg Briggs said. “It seemed like every time they had an opportunity to get the timely hit, they got it. They outhit us in the last two games. They swung the bats. They deserved to win. They deserved to win the series. I think they played better than we did.”
Pineville added insurance runs in the fifth and sixth innings on RBI singles by Courville and senior center fielder Amahri Jackson, and the Trojans’ chances of advancing to Sulphur looked bleak as they trailed 6-1 heading into the bottom of the sixth.
Clark and sophomore designated hitter Josef “Blue” Bayone led off the sixth with back-to-back doubles down the left-field line to make the score 6-2 and knock Courville out of the game, but Pineville senior Spencer Bordelon came on in relief and retired the first three batters he faced to end the Trojans’ threat.
Facing their final three outs, ASH didn’t go down without a fight. The Trojans put their first two runners on courtesy of a hit by pitch and a throwing error, and Tomlin cut the deficit to 6-3 with an RBI double, bringing the tying run to the plate with only one out.
But Bordelon buckled down, striking out Clark and getting Bayone to fly out to center field to earn the save, as the Rebels rushed onto the field in celebration of their first semifinal berth since 1985.
“We knew when we brought in Spencer that he has the ability to shut ‘em down,” said Guerriero, in his first season as the Rebels’ head coach after three years as an assistant. “They got a couple of runners on, but the big thing there is we had trust in Spencer. That’s why he’s in that role, and he came in and did the job.”
Huffman not only pitched a gem on Friday night, but he also had a tremendous series at the plate for the Rebels. After his leadoff single on Saturday, he had hits in five straight at-bats and finished the series 7-for-10 with a double and five runs scored.
“He’s just a ballplayer, man,” Guerriero said of Huffman, who played first base, third base and shortstop in addition to pitching in the three-game series. “That’s what he loves doing. Pretty much every game he pitches, he backs it up at the plate. Like I’ve said before, he’s a top-notch competitor.”
“He’s been very consistent. He’s been our go-to guy with pitching and hitting,” Courville said. “He rarely makes errors. He rarely strikes out. He is the definition of a tough out.”
ASH won the first game of the series 4-0 behind a one-hit, 11-strikeout performance by senior Joe Bordelon. He retired the first nine batters he faced before Huffman singled up the middle to lead off the fourth inning. He didn’t give up another hit in the game but walked two batters and had to pitch through a jam in the seventh thanks to two fielding errors.
Battling through a calf injury that he initially thought was cramps, Bordelon struck out the final two batters of the game to leave the bases loaded and preserve the shutout.
“I’m just fighting for my team, man,” he said. “We worked our ass off to get here. We’re trying to do the best that we can. We got to that point, and it’s a close game, and it’s all dependent on me to get that going through. At that point I had to fight through for them. It wasn’t just for me at that point – it was for everybody here, everybody watching, and more, especially my teammates and coaches.”
Unfortunately for the Trojans, that was the high of the series for them. They struggled with their bats, even in the Game 1 victory, scoring just seven runs on 16 hits over the three-game series.
Briggs said he hurt for his five seniors, who started at ASH as freshmen the year he took over the Trojans’ baseball program. He choked up when speaking about the gritty performance of Tomlin on Saturday.
Despite not starting a single game on the mound during the season or throwing more than 34 pitches in any of his five outings due to ongoing elbow problems that plagued his career, Tomlin threw 92 pitches in six innings on Saturday and gave the Trojans a chance to win the series.
“That’s what he’s done since Day 1 as a freshman,” Briggs said. “He wanted the ball, and I think over the four years … he’s definitely earned that. We made the decision really this morning to give it to him, and he gave us everything he’s got.”
Although one team had to see its season end and its rival advance to Sulphur, the quarterfinal series showed Rapides Parish baseball at its best. All three games saw standing-room-only crowds as an estimated 1,500 fans decked out in purple and gold or cardinal and white attended the series, and the crowds in both stands and down the lines were loud and locked in.
“It’s one of the best games I’ve ever thrown in my life,” Bordelon said after his win Thursday night. “When you go out there on the mound turn around after the national anthem to throw the first pitch of the game and you see everybody sitting out there, it just gives you a heart rush and your adrenaline’s running, you don’t know what to do. And when the big moment comes, when you’re getting outs and you’re scoring runs, they start helping you. It caused a big factor in the game tonight.”
Despite the raucous atmosphere, Courville said he and the Rebels tried to block out that noise and focus on winning the series.
“You can’t make the game bigger than it is,” Courville said. “Obviously, it’s a big game, but in my head I was thinking it’s just another game – another game with close friends that I’ve known for years. It’s just one of us had to go home, and it wasn’t us.”