By Corey Clark
LILBURN - It took extra innings and one long home run to settle one of the better pitchers' duals in recent memory on Wednesday evening.
With Collins Hill's Justin Earls and Parkview's Stephen McCray locked up in a classic battle, Collins Hill junior shortstop Justice French took over the hero role with a one-out, first-pitch solo home run in the top of the eighth inning that was the difference in the Eagles' 2-1 win over the second-ranked Panthers.
"It was an inside fastball," said French, who turned on the offering and blasted it way over the left field fence.
As he left the batter's box, French pointed excitedly at the Collins Hill dugout.
"It felt good," he said. "It happened so fast ... and we've been working hard for it. This team deserves it."
Earls certainly did.
The senior lefthander, who will play at the University of Georgia next season, was masterful in silencing the Parkview bats. He pitched all eight innings and allowed just three hits and no earned runs. He struck out seven and walked three on 104 pitches.
"I'm stunned right now," said Earls, who improved to 2-0 on the season. "It hasn't really sunk in yet."
He added: "I knew it was going to be a good game ... and it was one of the best games I've ever been a part of."
Collins Hill (8-3) took the lead in the top of the second inning when Ryan Sever hit a solo home run off the scoreboard in left field. The Eagles had additional scoring chances in the first and third innings, but in both frames McCray was able to get French with two runners on base to end the inning.
McCray was almost as equally effective as Earls. The senior righthander also pitched all eight innings, allowing two earned runs on seven hits, while striking out six and walking none on 115 pitches.
"I would say Gwinnett County probably has two of the top four pitchers in the state," said Parkview's Chan Brown in reference to Earls and McCray.
At one point, McCray retired 11 Eagles in a row, and he allowed just two hits over the last four innings.
His teammates just couldn't put anything together against Earls.
The Panthers (8-3) scored their lone run in the bottom of the third when Tristan Farrell struck out on a called third strike, but reached first when Collins Hill catcher Michael Young couldn't come up with the pitch cleanly.
Farrell then promptly stole second and then scored on Craig Brisson's clutch two-out single to center field - Brisson had two of the Panthers' three hits off Earls on the day, with Michael Langley adding the other.
Other than that, Earls allowed absolutely zilch on Wednesday.
"We were hoping to swing the bat better than we did," Brown said, "but that's not to take anything away from him. He pitched great."
Said Collins Hill head coach Paul Pierce: "We came in knowing it was going to be tough ... they're a good team and we knew it was going to be a battle."
A battle that couldn't be decided in just seven innings, a battle that wasn't won until Earls induced two groundouts with the tying run on third in the bottom of the eighth inning.
"This was like a booster shot in the arm," Pierce said. "It gives us a lift.
"We had a lot of respect for who we were playing, and we came in here and scratched and clawed."
Other than Brisson, Collins Hill leadoff hitter Nick Sperounis was the only player with multiple hits in the game.