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Sweet 16 No. 1 Ardrey Kell baseball holds off Independence 4-2

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/24/22/45/OxIzZ.Em.138.jpeg|171
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    Cole Smith of Ardrey Kell, left, gets tagged out at home by Independence catcher Mark Milleman, in the sixth inning on Thursday at Ardrey Kell. The Sweet 16 No. 1 Knights over came a 2-0 deficit.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/24/22/45/20l8N.Em.138.jpeg|227
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    Ardrey Kell runner Alex Featherstone right, makes it back safely to first base on a steal attempt in the sixth inning of Thursday night's baseball game against Independence. Ardrey Kell won 4-2.

Ardrey Kell baseball coach Hal Bagwell expected Thursday night’s game against former conference rival Independence to be close, regardless of the difference in ranking or records.

The nationally ranked and Sweet 16 No. 1 Knights (22-2) were able hold off the upset-minded No. 14 Patriots (12-8), overcoming an early 2-0 deficit to win 4-2 at Ardrey Kell.

“Independence has competed with us for years, no question about it,” Bagwell said. “They are a very scrappy club. (Independence coach) Daniel Cooke does as good a job as anybody in this area, don’t let anybody kid you. And they’re always ready to play baseball.”

Independence, which came into the game as the top team in the Southwestern 4A conference but on a three-game losing streak, jumped on Ardrey Kell in the top of the first. Ardrey Kell starting pitcher Logan Beehler walked the first and third Independence batters, and James Hickes brought them home with a two-RBI double to the gap in left-center field.

“We just came out so much more confident than we have these past four or five games,” Cooke said. “That’s one of our big pillars. We’ve got to score first, especially on the road at AK, that’s huge. ... I was so proud.”

The Knights, ranked No. 20 nationally by MaxPreps and tied in the loss column with Providence High atop the SoMeck 8 conference, answered with a run in the bottom of the first on an RBI single by Max Garner, cutting the Independence lead to 2-1.

Ardrey Kell sophomore Aaron Pilkington gave his team the lead in the bottom of the third with a two-run home run – his 11th this season – over the left field fence.

“He’s a special hitter who is really coming into his own,” Bagwell said. “He’s been real big for us, no doubt.”

Pinch hitter Alex Endler gave the Knights an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth with an RBI double.

The Ardrey Kell defense shut down the Independence batters after the first inning, only allowing five more base runners in the game.

Two of those were in the top of the seventh, when Independence tried to mount a two-out rally with runners on first and second. Relief pitcher Carter Love struck out R.J. Merli to end the game.

Henry Ryan pitched 1 2/3innings of relief for the Knights, giving up three hits and striking out three.

“We’re confident in our pitching, and we knew Logan Beehler and the rest of our staff could settle us down and do what we did,” Bagwell said. “There’s no panic out there. I don’t think two (runs) is going to beat us.”

Independence starting pitcher R.J. Merli (5 1/3 innings) and reliever Jarrett Thompson (2/3 of an inning) combined to allow just five hits while striking out three batters.

Both coaches said Thursday’s game will help prepare their teams for the last few games of the regular season.

Bagwell said the test will help the Knights get ready for conference games against Charlotte Catholic and South Mecklenburg next week.

Cooke hopes the close loss to a talented team gives his Patriots confidence heading into its conference game against Myers Park Friday.

“We know how good AK is, so (the players) know we can compete,” Cooke said. “If we come ready to play, we’re good. ... It’s just who shows up, and these boys see it now.”

Inscoe: 704-358-5923; Twitter: @CoreyInscoe
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