Panthers strike early, roll into semis with 8-5 win

POWDER SPRINGS -- Over the last two seasons, playoff series between Parkview and Hillgrove have become known for late-inning offensive outbursts.

After each team had one to decide the first two games of this year's Class AAAAA state quarterfinal series, the top-ranked Panthers made sure there was much less late drama in Game 3.

Parkview scored seven runs in the first two innings and minimized off a fifth-inning rally by the No. 7 Hawks before holding on for an 8-5 win Wednesday at Hillgrove to secure the final piece of the puzzle in an all-Gwinnett semifinal round.

"Obviously, we took advantage of some things that happened early," Parkview coach Chan Brown said after his Panthers (27-6) secured their spot in the semis, where they will welcome fifth-ranked Mill Creek to Hugh Buchanan Field beginning Monday. "That was big for us. And I was proud of (the players) for responding after (Hillgrove's) big inning. Jack (Esmonde) came in and shut them down the last two innings."

But before Esmonde entered to close out the game, the top three batters in the batting order -- Edwin Arias (2-for-4, two runs), Josh Hart (3-for-3, walk, stolen base, three runs) and Matt Olson (2-for-3, double, two RBIs) -- helped give the Panthers early breathing room.

Just as important was the work of surprise starter Mac Marshall (2-4).

The sophomore left-hander had struggled in two previous Game 3 assignments during Parkview's state title run last year, and entered Wednesday's start with a 5.53 ERA this season.

"Yes sir, I was a little bit surprised," Marshall said of getting the ball Wednesday. "But I knew these guys (have) got my back. It was awesome. It definitely helped me relax."

It took a little while for Marshall to relax after a walk to Tyler Weyenberg, a wild pitch and an RBI single by Chad Adkins gave Hillgrove (24-9) a quick 1-0 lead in the top of the first.

But Marshall did, in fact, settle down, limiting the Hawks to just three hits and two earned runs before leaving the game with one out in the fifth.

"He grew up (Wednesday)," Brown said of Marshall. "I think (giving him the start) was a big surprise for everyone.

"I did (have a gut feeling), and ... I can't say enough. He came out and did an excellent job. I'm real proud of him."

The Panthers quickly gave him some offensive support, with Arias and Hart leading off the bottom of the first with singles before Olson and Jarrett Freeland drew back-to-back walks to tie the game at 1-1.

Hunter Thornton was then hit by a pitch to force in another run and put Parkview in front 2-1, which prompted Hillgrove coach Dave Richardson to replace starter Sean O'Leary.

But Ryan Blanton greeted Brian Minter with an RBI single, and Esmonde and A.J. Davis each added an RBI later in the inning as part of a five-run outburst that left the Panthers with a 5-1 lead.

Olson drove in two more with a double in the second to make the score 7-1, and it looked like Parkview might cruise before Marshall began to tire in the fifth, when Adkins drew a one-out walk and Tyler Mauzy singled to put runners on first and third, and prompt Brown to call on Esmonde.

The Georgia-bound senior right-hander struggled at first, with an error on Matthew Vaccaro's infield grounder being followed by back-to-back doubles by Tyler Graham and pinch-hitter Brian Johnson, which pulled Hillgrove to within 7-5.

It also brought Hart's mind back to Game 3 of last year's championship series, when the Panthers stunned the Hawks with a 13-run top of the seventh that turned a two-run deficit into a state title.

"I kind of had a flashback," the Georgia Tech-committed junior outfielder admitted.

But Esmonde settled down and struck out Dwayne Carroll and got Dylan Dunn to bounce harmlessly to third to avoid further damage.

After Esmonde pitched around a one-out single by Weyenberg to throw a scoreless sixth, Hart and Olson took matters into their own hands with back-to-back singles to lead off the bottom of the inning before a walk to Freeland loaded the bases.

Ryan Blanton then hit into a double play, but Hart dashed home with a key insurance run that pushed Parkview's lead to 8-5.

"I knew I just had to do a job and get on base," Hart said of the sixth-inning run. "Things happen when you have speed on. ... Then Matt hit me (over), and with a little insurance, I felt comfortable."

Apparently, so did Esmonde, who set down the Hawks in order in the seventh, including striking out Johnson for the final out that sent the Panthers back to the semifinals.