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Comets rally in eighth inning to win Conference 16 title

Halifax County High School senior Andrew McCann (center, with batting helmet on) is congratulated by his teammates after the game-winning fly ball he hit with two out in the eighth inning in Monday's 5A North Region Conference 16 Tournament championship game against Patrick Henry High School-Ashland Monday at Halifax County High School. (Joe Chandler/Gazette-Virginian)There was nobody at Halifax County High School more surprised than Comets senior Andrew McCann to see the fly ball he sent to right field with two out and the game deadlocked at 4-4 in the bottom of the eighth inning drop to the grass.

Halifax County High School's Ryan Powell, who was at second base after having sent a double to left field moments before McCann came to the plate, was running at the crack of the bat and scampered across the plate unchallenged after Patrick Henry High School-Ashland right fielder Riley Enright dropped the ball McCann had laced to the outfield.

The run scored on the play lifted the Comets to a come-from-behind 5-4 win over the Patriots Monday at Halifax County High School, a win that gave the Comets the 5A North Region Conference 16 championship and put them within two wins of landing a berth in the state tournament.

"I was really excited to see him (Enright) drop the ball," McCann said.

"I knew Ryan was going to score because he always gets good jumps with two out."

The eighth-inning rally was the second time the Comets had had to score to keep their title chances afloat.

In the top of the seventh inning, the Patriots' Colby Mills produced a two-RBI double that gave his team the lead at 4-3, putting the Comets in a position in which they had to score in the bottom of the seventh inning to keep the game going.

The Comets had Will Harris, who had hit a single with one out, and Dustin Crews, who had walked with two out, on base with Tyler Stephens coming to the plate. Comets Head Coach Kelvin Davis opted to have Thomas Cole come off of the bench to hit for Stephens, who was 0-3 at the plate for the day, with two strikeouts.

Cole got behind in the count with two strikes, but punched a base hit up the middle that allowed Harris to score the game-tying run.

"I was shocked when he (Davis) called me to hit," Cole remarked.

"I didn't know what to do. I got down two strikes and I was like 'he (the PH pitcher) is going to throw me a curveball and I'm going to strike out.' But, he threw it right down the pipe and I just turned on it and got a base hit right through second base."

Stephens said he had no problem with being asked to step aside at the plate for Cole.

"I had confidence in him," Stephens said.

"I had been struggling at the plate the whole game. I just had confidence in Thomas that he was going to get the big hit. When it got down to two strikes, everybody got quiet, but I still had confidence Thomas was going to do what he did and get a base hit."

While the key plays of the seventh and eighth innings were crucial to the Comets' win, so was the team's pitching.

Freshman Andrew Abbott made his second start of the season in his team's biggest game of the season to date, fanning six batters and allowing four walks, four hits and two runs.

With one Patriots run having scored in the top of the sixth inning and the Patriots having runners on second base and third base with nobody out, Davis brought senior Chase Wilkerson to the mound.

Wilkerson struck out three batters in a row to get the Comets out of the jam. While the Patriots got a two-RBI double off of Wilkerson in the top of the seventh inning, Wilkerson's final numbers showed him striking out four of the 11 batters he faced and allowing two walks and the one hit.

"My confidence grew with every strike I threw," Wilkerson said of his key stint on the mound in the sixth inning when he struck out the side to end the Patriots' rally.

"The first out is always the hardest to get. After that, I got more comfortable."

Wilkerson said he just didn't make the right pitch when the Patriots came up with the two-RBI double.

"He (Comets catcher Tristan Howerton) called an outside fastball and I just left it a little too much over the plate and he (Mills) put a good swing on it and put it out there good," Wilkerson explained.

"I had confidence in the team that they would pick me up and get it back."

PH took a 1-0 lead in the first inning and held it until the Comets scored twice in the bottom of the third inning with the help of a PH error and a wild pitch. A run-scoring single by Powell in the bottom of the fourth inning staked the Comets to a 3-1 lead, which the Patriots eventually whittled away.

"I'm just proud of the guys," said Davis.

"We were very fortunate to get out of this game today with a win. These guys just never give up.

They never stopped fighting through this game. My hat goes off to everybody.

"It's huge being conference champion after what we displayed during the regular season to come back and get this momentum going," Davis continued.

"It's huge not only for the kids, but for the parents of these young men, the school and the community. There is a tradition of baseball here. We want to keep it up."

Patrick Henry High School-Ashland Head Coach Sam Hart gave both teams kudos for their effort.

"Both teams competed, and unfortunately somebody had to lose," Hart remarked.

"I thought our kids competed and put ourselves into position, but it just didn't work out to win."

The Comets had 10 hits in the game with Powell, Harris and Tripp Bennett leading the team with two hits each. McCann, Howerton, Crews and Cole had one hit each.

Mills led the Patriots with two hits, with Tyler Starling and A.J. Hart each getting one hit.