The final week of the South Piedmont Conference regular season is here and with it comes a lot of jockeying for position in the SPC tournament and the 3A playoffs.
Jay M. Robinson and Hickory Ridge have a lot at stake as the Bulldogs and Ragin' Bulls sit in second and third-place, respectively in league play. Both teams trail only Northwest Cabarrus, who has occupied the top spot for most of the season and is the defending regular season and tournament champion.
But Robinson and Hickory Ridge will be focused on each other Thursday night in the second game of the two-game series where second place in the SPC could be at stake.
The Bulldogs may be the most-improved team in the league, as Robinson (11-5, 9-2 as of April 14) has come full circle after going 5-10 a year ago. Coach Jason Sarvis and his team feel like their best is yet to come.
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"I love this conference because every game is a rivalry," he said. "We feel like that has brought out the best in our team. Right now, we are playing our best baseball."
Hickory Ridge (10-7, 7-4 as of April 14) is also looking to peak at the right time, as the Ragin' Bulls have battled to be in the upper half of an ultra-competitive conference.
The Bulls could take a lot of momentum into the SPC tournament with a road win at Robinson to close the regular season.
This game might as well be a playoff game because the environment and intensity surrounding it will have all the same feelings.
Jay M. Robinson
After a roller-coaster season in 2010, mainly due to injuries, the veteran Robinson team has turned things around in 2011 and hopes to prove how good they have become when it matters most in the next few weeks.
The Bulldogs are led by their pitching staff, which includes junior Brody Koerner, a Clemson commit, and sophomore Phillip Perry, who has yielded just over two runs per game in SPC play.
Perry will get the ball Thursday night, and has been impressive in the No. 2 spot behind Koerner this season.
But while Robinson has been able to depend on its pitching, the Bulldogs have also gotten timely hitting and will need it to finish the season strong.
Senior Dillon Ashburn has been the team's top batter for most of the season and is hitting .450 with four home runs on the season. But Ashburn will need help from leadoff hitter Blaine Hill and Logan Austin, who lead a deep and experienced lineup.
This game could decide who gets a home playoff game and who has to go on the road, so a lot is at stake. Expect the game to be low-scoring and tight like most of the Bulldogs' games have been.
The Hickory Ridge baseball program has taken great strides in the last two seasons under Knapp, as the Bulls have turned the corner into the upper echelon of the SPC.
The Ragin' Bulls will look to take the next step and prove it in postseason.
Hickory Ridge's top two pitchers Blake Sides and Zach Andrews will have a lot to say about just how strong the Bulls are the next few weeks. Both Sides and Andrews have the arms to win in big games, but will have to do it against the league and even state's best.
The Bulls' offense has been explosive for most of the season, averaging seven runs per game. Sides and Andrews are also the team's most consistent hitters, but get a lot of help from sophomore catcher Jake Barbee, who is hitting above .500, with senior outfielder Jarrod Brown also driving in a lot of runs.
Hickory Ridge and Robinson will likely see each other again in the SPC tournament, but the Ragin' Bulls will be looking to prove they can beat the Bulldogs on their home turf.