AMHERST — Hoping to save his most seasoned pitchers for the region championship game, Jefferson Forest coach Ryan Gilleland put the ball into the hands of his closer against Amherst on Tuesday and effectively said: It’s up to you, New York.
New York would be the tall and lanky Domenic Rowlands, who moved from the Empire State last summer and was making just his second start as a Cavalier. The task was a tall one: hold the Seminole District regular-season champ, who had defeated JF twice already this season, at bay at its home field.
New York turned out the lights.
“We used him a lot as our closer,” Gilleland said of Rowlands, a King University commit. “He didn’t throw a lot of innings [this season] so his arm was fresh. … We thought he gave us our best chance to win tonight by getting the start on the bump, and he took advantage of it.”
Rowlands allowed just one run on three hits in 4 1/3 innings and also hit a solo home run, reliever Peyton Smith earned the save and escaped several jams in the late innings, and Jefferson Forest defeated the Lancers 6-4 to advance to Thursday’s region title game at Halifax, where a trip to the Class 4 state tourney will be on the line.
“I thought we played solid defense,” said Rowlands, who struck out eight and had special command of his curveball. “All I had to do was throw strikes and they made plays for me, so we got it done. I just had to focus in and get things done. I knew if I threw strikes then we would come out and get the win.”
Forest (10-4) took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first off a sacrifice fly by shortstop Sully Tibbs. Then it put together a five-run fifth for a 6-0 lead. JF’s only hit in that frame was Rowland’s homer to center. It occurred off Amherst’s Jonah Cunningham, who entered in relief of starter Christian Martin after the first inning. Both Gilleland and Amherst coach John Apperson were attempting to save their aces for Thursday’s region title game.
Cunningham found trouble by allowing two walks and three runs (two earned) in 1/3 of an inning (Amherst also committed two errors in the frame). Apperson had to turn back to Martin to get out of the frame.
This one was a wild affair defined by strikeouts, walks, miscues and the occasional big-time hit. At one point, JF had six runs on just two hits. Amherst, stymied by Rowlands, managed just one hit through just four innings.
“We came into the night with a plan,” Apperson said. “You can look at that game a whole lot of ways. But I think the plan we went with was the right one, and we would do it again. Things just didn’t work out the way we wanted them to early.”
Amherst (10-3) turned to freshman ace Dalton Wentz to pitch the third, and the hard-throwing righty allowed just two hits and struck out eight. Wentz sat down the last 11 batters he faced.
The Lancers made it 6-1 on a RBI groundout by Cunningham (2 for 3) in the fifth and then tacked on three runs against the lefty Smith, on in relief of Rowlands, in the sixth, a frame highlighted by Cunningham’s two-run single to left.
Smith stranded runners at the corners in the fifth, got a strikeout to end the sixth with Martin lurking at third base, and then set down Amherst 1-2-3 in the seventh.
“Their crowd is big, it’s loud, you’ve just got to focus on me and the catcher,” said Smith, who yielded three runs (none earned) on one hit, walked four and struck out six in 2 2/3 innings.
JF had resolve, Smith said, after dropping two regular-season games to ACHS. “It’s definitely some frustration,” he added. “It’s bad losing to a team like Amherst who’s in your region. So beating them was very, very awesome.”
Amherst, which features a young squad with a budding sophomore class, has seen its fair share of late-innings comebacks over the years after the sun sets in Lancer Country. But this one wasn’t in the cards.
“There were just some other factors that got in the way that were out of our control,” Apperson said. “Sometimes it’s gonna fall that way for you. I told the kids I’m as proud as I could be of them. There’s no other group that I want, just because they showed resolve and then kept getting back in the box and scrapping and fighting. That’s important for this team and this program. …
“Tonight obviously hurts. We talked about anything that’s worth it is gonna hurt. And you’ve got to let it hurt, you’ve got to let it sting for a while. And then you come back stronger because of it.”
Gilleland said he wanted JF to jump on Amherst early by putting balls in play. The Cavaliers finished with just five hits, but moved runners over and took advantage of Amherst’s mistakes in the first couple innings.
“We’ve played from behind a lot here the last couple weeks,” Gilleland said. “I’m not gonna lie, it was kinda nice to have the lead there for a little bit. We sat on that lead for a little bit, but Wentz, we knew he was tough and he was gonna come into the game at some point, rather it was the start or the finish. He’s a bulldog. We didn’t do much against him.”
JF came back to defeat Salem in Saturday’s region quarterfinal, with Rowlands earning the save. If the team makes a state tourney appearance by defeating Halifax, it’ll be moments like Saturday or Tuesday it can look back on to see its progress.
“We worked our butts off in practice,” Rowlands said, “and we’ve finally proven what we can do on the field.”
Jefferson Forest 6, Amherst 4
Region 4D semifinals
WP: Domenic Rowlands. LP: Christian Martin. S: Peyton Smith. HR: Rowlands (JF) solo in top 2nd.
Highlights: JF — Smith 2-3, 2 R (2 2/3 IP, 1 H, 3 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 6 Ks); Rowlands 4 1/3 IP, 3 H, 1 R/ER, 3 BB, 8 Ks (2-3, HR, RBI); Sully Tibbs 0-3, 2 RBIs. ACHS — Dalton Wentz 5 IP relief, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 Ks; Jonah Cunningham 2-4, 3 RBIs; Christian martin 1-3; Mick Dawson 1-3, R.
Records: Jefferson Forest 10-4. Amherst 10-3.
Next: No. 4 Jefferson Forest travels to No. 2 Halifax for Thursday’s 6 p.m. region final, with a state championship berth on the line.