The baseball Gods keep smiling on the Red Bank Lions.
"Comeback" has become the password for Red Bank after another late-game rally on Saturday night produced a thrilling 8-7 win over the visiting Livingston Academy Wildcats.
And for the first time in the history of the Lions storied baseball program, they can now make plans for a trip to Murfreesboro as the BlueCross Spring Fling state tournament begins on Tuesday.
It's been quite a roller coaster ride for coach Trey Hicks and a never-say-die bunch of players who have really come off the deck in recent weeks. They extended their season when nobody really gave them much of a chance to even advance in the District 6-AA tournament after ending the regular season on a horrible 13-game losing streak.
The Lions ended their regular season at 13-20, but have won seven of their last eight and are now 20-21 as they prepare for next week's trip.
"That was stressful," said coach Hicks after the latest comeback in the final home game for the Lions, who have only one senior on their team.
"I'm 28 going on 42 right now. I don't know if my heart can handle much more of this," he said quietly as Red Bank players, parents, school officials and other fans gathered in the outfield grass to take pictures and to totally enjoy the moment.
"Beating East Hamilton in the second game of the district tournament really gave us the confidence we needed, but we've shown a lot of heart and fight in these last two weeks. It doesn't matter what our record is. A lot of different people have really stepped up for us recently.
"We had some great at-bats today, but what more can you ask for than the three-run double by Hagen Wilkey. And what about that diving catch by Ryder Pierce in center? I don't know how we did it, but we'll go to Murfreesboro next week and see what we can do," Hicks said.
Hagen Wilkey was the hero for the Lions as he finished the day with two of the biggest hits of his life in the fifth and sixth innings.
The Wildcats had taken control with five runs in the fifth to take a 6-2 lead and things were beginning to look bleak for the Lions as the game was getting near the end.
Wilkey ripped a two-run homer in the fifth to cut the difference to 6-4.
Then in the sixth, Hunter Romans got hit by a pitch with one out before D.J. Hale beat out an infield single. Gage Winton flied to left for the second out before Pierce walked to load the bases.
Red Bank catcher Tyler Phillips, who had given the Lions an early lead with a two-run homer in the first, drove in his third run of the day when he got hit by a pitch to make the score 6-5.
That set the stage for Wilkey, who smashed the first pitch from Livingston Academy's Colby Reeder into the gap in left-center, scoring all three runners who were on base.
Wilkey had relieved Red Bank starter Raunel Perez with two outs in the fifth and earned the victory. He walked the first man he faced while the second one reached on an error, but he got a grounder to short from Lucas Dailey to end the inning.
Wilkey allowed a leadoff single to Reed Sanders in the sixth and he later scored on another Red Bank error, but Phillips caught Mark Winningham trying to steal second to end the inning with the Lions still trailing, 7-4.
Then in the top of the seventh after the big three-run double and his team clutching a one-run lead, Wilkey allowed a pair of singles between a strikeout and a fly to center where Pierce made a diving catch for the second out.
With runners on second and third with two outs, Wilkey then went to a full count on Dailey before getting his third strikeout swinging on a nasty knuckleball. As soon as Phillips caught the ball and the umpire signaled the third out, he leaped in jubilation as the Red Bank players piled on Wilkey at the pitcher's mound.
Wilkey is a hard-nosed quarterback for the Lions, so he knows what it feels like to be at the bottom of a pile, but he was all smiles afterward.
"They had brought in a new pitcher and I was watching him warmup. He threw me a fastball on the first pitch and I crushed it. Then between innings, coach told me to go finish the job.
"It was a 3-2 count when he called for the knuckleball. It was nasty and he swung and missed. I really didn't care what I had to do as long as I could help my team win. This is a great feeling," he added, not really aware that he finished the game with five runs batted in.
The Wildcats finish an outstanding season at 25-13 after posting a record of 11-19 a year ago.
Coach Shane Qualls just hopes his team can keep making forward progress.
"That was a great baseball game as both teams kept answering what the other was doing. It kept going back and forth, but those are just the breaks of the game. That diving catch in center was big and then that three-run double took the pressure off of them. Red Bank has really been coming on here lately," he said outside a subdued Wildcat dugout.
"We have six seniors on this team who are great kids. We got to this same game last year when we lost to Polk County. We've had a great year, but we want to do like Red Bank and take that next big step," Qualls concluded on a positive note.
The Lions finished the day with eight runs on eight hits and three errors.
Wilkey and Hale were the only Red Bank players with two hits. Gage Winton had a first-inning double and was on base when Phillips connected. Pierce had a bunt single in the third while Perez had a leadoff single in the second.
Livingston Academy finished the game with seven runs on 10 hits and one error.
Reeder led the way with three hits, including a solo homer in the second, an RBI-single in the fifth and another single in the seventh.
Starting pitcher M.J. Lockhart also had a double among his two hits.
LIVINGSTON ACADEMY 010 051 0 -- 7 10 1
RED BANK 200 024 x -- 8 8 3
Lockhart, Martin (5), Reeder (6) and Oliver; Perez, Wilkey (5) and Phillips.
(Email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)