The fast-improving Whale Branch Early College High School baseball team eased through its Class 1-A playoff opener Thursday night against visiting Cross High School. Now it's on to a much tougher test and a true measuring stick for the Warriors this weekend.
Led by a strong pitching performance by Ryan Green, an opportunistic offense buoyed by senior Emmanuel Wright and the often generous nature of the visiting Trojans, the Warriors captured their playoff opener 17-3 in just five innings.
As a reward for the lopsided home victory, Whale Branch gets a Saturday road meeting with Latta, the No. 2-ranked team in the state.
"This game was good for us," said first-year coach Joshua Brister. "We played well offensively and defensively. But the real test comes this Saturday at Latta. We need the guys focused and prepared for that test against the second-ranked (Class 1-A) team in the state."
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At least on Thursday, Brister had his team's attention focused squarely on the undermanned Trojans. The offense got going early and often as Whale Branch scored 16 runs in the first three innings, including nine in the breakaway second inning.
The onslaught was a combination of poor pitching and defense by Cross and timely hitting by a Warriors team that pressured the Trojans from the start with aggressive base running and patience at the plate.
Offensively, the squad was led by senior Wright, who notched a pair of triples, including one to deep center with the bases loaded that gave his Warriors a 5-0 lead early in the second inning. The performance was icing on the cake for Wright, who recently joined two other Warriors (Green and Devonta Delaney) on the All-Region 5-A team.
"That was a real confidence boost for me," Wright said of the recognition. "It showed I can play with the best in the state and I wanted to come out and prove that tonight."
With his offense in full gear, Green had a strong five-inning outing in which he gave up zero earned runs and kept the Trojans off balance by pounding the strike zone with fastballs from start to finish. The performance is even more impressive given that Green is only an eighth-grader and has usually been the third starter in Whale Branch's rotation. With Latta looming Saturday, Brister opted to hold back brothers Devonta and Javonta Delaney on Thursday and the promising Green responded.
"I just wanted to be there for my teammates and pitch well," said Green, who struck out the side in the top of the fifth to close the shortened game. "Even in the fifth inning I felt good. I wanted to finish the game."
The game was essentially finished in the second inning, when Whale Branch sent 13 batters to the plate to run starter Jawan Washington, who struggled to find the plate. Greg Alley fared little better in relief as he was greeted by Wright's triple and suffered through multiple errors as his defense wilted under Whale Branch's pressure on the base paths.
After the Warriors added another seven runs on the strength of seven consecutive hits to start the third inning, Cross countered with three of its own in the top of the fourth to avoid an even earlier end to the game than they ultimately got. The breakthrough was aided by a trio of Whale Branch errors and a few wild pitches by Green, something that Brister quickly addressed with his team following the game.
"The kids lost focus and attention on the game and that is something we cannot do on Saturday against Latta," Brister said. "That's one of the things we've been trying to change since we got here. We want the kids focused on every play."