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Wesleyan rallies with two-run seventh to advance

SAVANNAH -- Wesleyan coach Mike Shaheen has been a part of several classic games during his coaching career.

But the decisive game Wednesday in the best-of-three Class A state quarterfinals series against Calvary Day School will be one the Wolves' head coach likely won't ever forget. Especially if his team goes on to claim another state championship this season.

Trailing the fourth-ranked Cavaliers 3-2 going into the bottom of the seventh, second-ranked Wesleyan rallied for two runs in their last at-bat to pull out a 4-3 victory that sent it to the state semifinals for a third straight season.

"We've been blessed to be in the playoffs a lot over the last seven or so years and have been in a lot of Game 3s, but this one is definitely up there (among the best of them)," Shaheen said.

"I'm proud the players believed, didn't give up and just battled, and our seniors took over in the end."

One of those seniors was pitcher Kevin O'Leary who bats first in the Wolves' lineup and led off the bottom of the seventh with a single.

Senior right fielder Conor Welton, who had four hits in four trips, followed with another single through the middle to give the Wolves runners at first and second with no outs and bring left fielder Alex Thykeson to bat.

Though Thykeson was 3-for-3 at the plate, Shaheen called for his third hitter in the lineup to bunt. Thykeson got the bunt down between home and the pitcher's mound. The ball was fielded cleanly by Calvary reliever Daniel Payne, who thought briefly about throwing to third to try to cut off the lead runner, but then turned to take the safe out at first.

However, the pitcher's throw sailed over the first baseman's head and rolled into the outfield, allowing O'Leary to score the tying run. As Calvary right fielder Beau Smith corralled the ball, Shaheen also waived Welton around third in an attempt to score the winning run. A throw to the plate by Smith beat Welton there, but as the senior slid into home feet first, he knocked the ball out of the catcher's glove to score the game-clinching run.

While the Calvary players dropped their heads in disbelief and walked slowly toward their dugout, the Wolves stormed the field to celebrate the wild victory which kept their hopes for a third straight state crown alive.

"That was pretty incredible," said O'Leary, who went the distance on the mound for Wesleyan to come away with the win. "I have to catch my breath."

Welton, who played quarterback for the Wesleyan football team before tearing the ACL in his right knee during the playoffs last fall, said he didn't realize he had jarred the ball loose until he looked back after crossing the plate.

"I was just trying to make something happen," said Welton, who will play at Georgia next year and didn't get to play baseball until late in the season after allowing his knee to heal. "It's like football. I was going hard, and when you do that, something good can happen."

Shaheen wasn't surprised that Welton's hustle and effort paid off for the Wolves in a big way.

"You can't doubt a kid like that," the coach said. "He's a kid who does make things happen."

Perhaps it was only fitting that the Wolves and Cavs had to go three games to decide their series and that it came down to a thrilling finish.

The Wolves (24-9) have won the last two Class A state titles while the Cavs (27-4) also have been one of the state's most dominant teams in recent years, winning state championships in 2005 and 2007 while also making the state finals in 2006.

Last season, Calvary lost to Landmark Christian, the team Wesleyan beat for the state crown, in the semifinals. In 2007, the Cavs eliminated the Wolves from the title chase in the quarterfinals.

"This was a great series," Shaheen said. "I feel bad for their players. They deserved to go to the next round, too. They're as good as anyone left."

The two state powers split a doubleheader Tuesday with Calvary taking the opener 2-1 in eight innings and Wesleyan winning the second game 8-1 to force Wednesday's deciding game.

It looked like the Wolves' inability to produce the big hit early might end up costing them. They loaded the bases in the first with one out, but Calvary sophomore pitcher Ryan Lawlor got the next two batters to escape the jam.

In the third, the Wolves, who were the home team after winning a coin flip, did plate a run on a single to left that drove in Welton for a 1-0 lead. But again after loading the bases with one out, the Wolves couldn't take advantage as they left the sacks full.

Calvary scored twice in the fourth for a 2-1 lead. After the first two batters in the inning reached on singles to put runners on the corners for Skyler Strickland, the Cavs' cleanup man laid down a sacrifice bunt for the first run. The go-ahead run scored following an error by the Wolves.

Calvary extended its lead to 3-1 in the fifth when Jamie Bragg led off with a double to the fence in center and later scored on a groundout to second for the second out of the inning.

The Wolves got within 3-2 in the bottom of the fifth when Welton led off with a double and went to third on a single by Thykeson. Cleanup batter Gardner Heaner then hit into a double play, but Welton scored in the process to get Wesleyan within one.

Calvary stranded runners on first and second in the sixth and Wesleyan also left one on in the bottom of the frame.

But after O'Leary retired the Cavs in order in the seventh, Wesleyan came to bat optimistic it could tie the game if not win it in its final at-bat.

"I didn't doubt we could do it," O'Leary said. "When I got a hit and (Welton) singled behind me, our hitters are too good not to produce in those conditions."