'Landers top Junior Bucs

By Wes Holtsclaw

   The Cloudland Highlander baseball team has officially entered the race for the Watauga Valley Conference title.
   After a dominating third inning against University High pitcher Drew Harrell, the Highlanders stretched out against two replacement pitchers to overwhelm the Junior Bucs Tuesday afternoon with a 9-3 victory at Cloudland Park.
   "They came out and they wanted it," said 'Lander skipper Jeff Bradley. "I saw it in their eyes today and you could tell. The last time we played, they didn't want it, and you could tell. Today you could see it, and they came out and played baseball."
   Said Jr. Buc coach Joe Borden: "Well, we made several errors, plus a bunch of bonehead plays. Cloudland, I'm not sure they made an error, and they hit the ball. That's what it takes. Caleb (Denton) pitched a good game, kept our batters off of our stride.
   "We just played flat lousy, I don't want to take anything away from Cloudland -- they played like they had to."
   University High opened with two players gaining bases from being hit by Denton, but the 'Lander defense sat three down and allowed no runs. The Jr. Buc defense did just as well against Cloudland, recording three quick outs to advance the game.
   University High had better luck in the second inning. Morgan Woodacre opened with a single; however, Denton sat down two straight batters. Alex Graves then delivered a nice RBI with an error off the glove of James Gardner, and the Jr. Bucs had the 1-0 lead.
   Cloudland didn't accomplish much in the second inning, as Harrell sat down another batter and let his defense take care of the rest. But when the time came for the Jr. Bucs to step to the plate, the Cloudland defense was ready, recording three quick outs, including a double play.
   The 'Lander bats showed up in the third with a lead-off double from Jon Gibbs. Josh Johnson followed with a single, setting up Mark Byrd, who hammered in two RBIs with a single. A Denton safety on error sent in Byrd, giving Cloudland the 3-1 lead.
   The Highlanders would have the bases loaded for Harrell, when Daniel Smith came to the mound. Smith did what was needed, as he struck out two straight batters to get out of the inning for University High.
   "We were up against the best player in the conference, by far," Bradley said. "(Drew) Harrell is an outstanding athlete, a great baseball player. We were patient with the bats, and when he put it over there, we got some sticks on the balls. We were patient when he threw balls, and we walked. It sorta snowballed from there."
   The Junior Bucs also loaded the bases at the top of the fourth inning, but two good defensive plays from Clint Steiner and T.J. Lunsford to Dale Baker helped Cloudland climb out of the sticky situation.
   With a new pitcher on the mound, University High looked ready to mount a comeback, but Cloudland wouldn't allow it.
   Gibbs and Johnson opened the bottom of the fourth with a pair of singles for Cloudland, setting up a sacrifice fly from Byrd to score Gibbs. Lunsford walked, and Denton singled to load the bases once more for Cloudland.
   Gardner followed by sending a routine pop fly into centerfield and was saved as Morgan Woodacre dropped the ball, sending Johnson in for the score. After Mark Barnett was walked and Lunsford scored, Ben Shew was sent out to the mound.
   Shew beaned Dale Baker in the back, sending Denton home, then walked Clint Steiner for a score from Gardner that gave Cloudland the 8-1 lead.
   University High responded as Paul Williams and Shew took bases, but they were held back for the score after another round of Cloudland defense.
   The Highlanders, on the other hand, fell victim to a double play with the bases loaded, as the Junior Bucs prepared for a comeback.
   Alex Graves got the Junior Bucs started in the sixth inning, followed by Drew Harrell. Harrell would be eliminated at second, after a play from Andy Nelson. Daniel Smith later drove in Graves, and Andy Nelson avoided being thrown out at third, stealing home as University High came back 8-3.
   Cloudland catcher Barnett had something to say about that. He stepped up, and on the first pitch put an exclamation point on the ballgame with a huge solo home run into left centerfield. Cloudland took the 9-3 lead, and after a final stall on defense, re-entered the conference race.
   "It was just the perfect pitch," said Barnett. "Straight down the line. I just gave it a power swing, as I like to call it. I loved this win, it was awesome for us. But you can't be in the conference race if you don't win ballgames, and we've started in that direction."
   It was a good win for Denton, who struck out five and walked two.
   "My arm felt good today," said Denton. "And my pitches, it seemed like he wasn't calling the strikes I wanted him to call. My curveball wasn't working earlier in the game, but later it started working. I was just trying to throw strikes and not walk them. I'm just glad with the win."
   University High has two conference games remaining, with a visit to the Unaka Rangers and a game against North Greene, while Cloudland plays two games with North Greene. It's too early to tell who is a favorite to win the conference, as the games could go either way at any given time.