Providence High baseball coach Danny Hignight never expects to have an easy game when it comes to the state playoffs.
As it turned out, the Panthers’ toughest challenge came from a familiar foe.
Providence jumped out to an early lead over SoMeck 8 4A rival and defending state champ South Mecklenburg, then held on for a 4-3 victory Tuesday in the third round of the NCHSAA 4A playoffs.
Jake Holtzapple belted a two-run home run in the bottom of the fourth inning for the Panthers (26-4), and reliever Matt Ball pitched Providence out of a jam in the top of the sixth for its third win of the season over the Sabres (20-7).
“They’re all hard – every round is hard,” Hignight said. “The first round was hard, the second round, and this round was hard. Everybody wants the same thing, and they’re not going to give us anything.”
Josh Hiatt threw five scoreless innings and struck out five to get the win for the Panthers, who next face either nationally ranked and Sweet 16 No. 1 Ardrey Kell or South Caldwell in a regional semifinal game Friday.
While Hiatt and Providence’s defense were shutting down South Mecklenburg, the Panthers’ offense was giving them some breathing room.
Holtzapple’s two-run homer over the Providence High stadium scoreboard in left-center field kicked off a four-run fourth inning against South Meck starter Max Bazin, who had held the Panthers hitless over the first three innings.
“We want to carry this momentum all the way” to the state championship series, Hiatt said. “My job was to just keep (the ball) low and let the defense make plays. That’s all I needed to do – just trust my defense.”
However, Hiatt began having control issues in the top of the sixth, with the Sabres striking back for three runs – a RBI single by Brooks Kennedy, and a two-run double from Harris Yett – and loading the bases with two outs.
That’s when Hignight went to Ball, who struck out South Meck’s Kirstan Feist to end the inning. Ball then retired the side in the top of the seventh for the save.
“We finally had a better approach,” Sabres coach Jon Tuscan said. “You take away one bad fly ball or one bad pitch, and we could’ve won this game. But they’ve got the weapons to take it all the way.”