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Wins run out on Bulldogs' late-season rally

North Gwinnett catcher Adrian Stewart looks away after Harrison scored the go-ahead run in Game 3  of the semifinals of the Class AAAAA state baseball tournament Tuesday.

North Gwinnett catcher Adrian Stewart looks away after Harrison scored the go-ahead run in Game 3 of the semifinals of the Class AAAAA state baseball tournament Tuesday.

KENNESAW — For the better part of a month, North Gwinnett’s baseball team simply found ways to win.

The Bulldogs finally ran out of methods in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to Harrison in Game 3 of the Class AAAAA state semifinal series at Don Shaw Field.

It also ended an inspired run of 12 wins in the team’s last 15 games, lifting a team in danger of not even making the playoffs until the regular season’s final day into the state Final Four.

However, coach Frank Vashaw points out even Tuesday’s defeat that ended North’s season at 22-14 typified the fighting spirit his team displayed during that run.

“We battled and had chances,” Vashaw said. “It’s pretty indicative of our kids all year. There’s one thing you can say about our guys. There hasn’t been a situation all year where they’ve thrown in the towel and given up.”

The Bulldogs never gave up — not when they were 10-11 midway through their Region 7-AAAAA schedule — nor when they needed comeback wins over Northview and Peachtree Ridge in the final week of the season. Those victories propelled them into the postseason after a Chattahoochee loss to Mill Creek in the regular season’s final day.

They didn’t even give up trailing most of the day Tuesday.

Like they had throughout sweeps of Milton and North Cobb in the first two rounds and a three-game victory over Chapel Hill in the quarterfinals, North found different heroes.

First it was pitcher Will Bates (7-3), who kept the Bulldogs in the game by giving up just five hits and two runs in a complete-game performance.

Then, there was Cole Willoughby.

With North struggling to find hits with runners on base, the sophomore came up in the top of the sixth and delivered a pinch-hit, RBI double inside the third-base line to temporarily pull the Bulldogs even. It was the second such hit and second RBI in four postseason pinch-hit, at-bats for the sophomore, and demonstrated just how deep North was during its late-season run.

“The hit by Willoughby, for a sophomore that has three at-bats on the season, was big,” Vashaw said. “We brought him up when we had a roster opening, and he had two hits and a sacrifice fly in four at-bats. And he really gave us a chance.”

And there were plenty of other heroes for North during the postseason.

Included among those heroes were Chad White (8-1), who won all three of his starts, including Game 1 of the semifinals against Harrison on Monday, and posted a save in another game during the playoffs. Those efforts were despite missing several starts in the second half of the season with tendinitis in his pitching arm.

In addition, centerfielder Coty Nash stepped up and hit .414 with seven RBIs and four runs scored in 10 postseason games.

Then, of course, there were big guns Chris Hawkins (.548, 5 HR, 12 RBIs in the playoffs) and Nick Jones (.300, 2 HR, 9 RBIs), who had been the catalysts to the Bulldogs’ offense the entire season.

But not even that dynamic duo could rescue the Bulldogs after they had stranded 30 baserunners — including 18 in scoring position — in the series.

Those runners became even more frustrating after both Hawkins and Jones came up just short on deep drives to center field in the seventh inning Tuesday — the former on a Michael Hodorowski’s dramatic diving catch just in front of the fence.

But as Vashaw pointed out, none of that erases everything North accomplished during its run through the second half of the season.

“As hard as these kids have fought since the last game we lost to Chattahoochee on April 18, then we rolled off a 12-3 spot to get here,” Vashaw said. “Everybody talked about other team, and we beat some good teams. We played very well against a lot of good teams in our region and in the state. We’re real proud of that.

“(Tuesday’s loss) is going to hurt because we had chances. It’s going to hurt for a while, but our kids are resilient. What we’re going to have to do is learn from it. We’re going to miss our seniors, obviously. ... The kids are going to struggle with this, but I’m proud of them.”