Friday night, after Providence High’s nationally ranked baseball team was upset by Raleigh Millbrook in the first game of a best-of-3 state championship series, Panthers coach Danny Hignight spoke calmly to his club and then he spoke calmly to the media.
He wasn’t worried. He said his team would be fine. Then, he went to his hotel and got eight hours sleep.
“When I told you after Game 1, ‘No worries,’ I felt really good,” Hignight said.
Saturday, Providence won Game 2 and Game 3 in emphatic fashion, winning 10-0 and 10-2. The Panthers (31-4) pounded 24 hits and won their first state championship since 1995.
Neither game featured much drama.
In Game 2, Providence punished Millbrook’s top player, ace pitcher Alex Royalty, scoring four runs in the first inning. Providence won 10-0 in five innings via the mercy rule. The Panthers had 12 hits. Pitcher Austin Leonard tossed a two-hitter, faced the 15-batter minimum, and didn’t let a Millbrook hitter past first base.
In Game 3, Providence scored seven runs in the sixth inning, when they got five hits, including a spectacular inside-the-park home run from Josh Hiatt.
Millbrook scored twice in the bottom of the third to tie the game, but only had one serious scoring opportunity after that against Game 3 winning pitcher Zach Brown. Providence grabbed a 3-2 lead in the fourth, when Ohio State-bound catcher Andrew Fishel singled in Logan Davidson.
Then, the remarkable sixth inning crushed any hopes Millbrook might’ve had. Providence finished the game with 12 more hits, winning its first state championship in 20 years and the second in school history.
“I’m just so proud of our guys for getting this far,” third-year Millbrook head coach Austin James told the Raleigh News & Observer. “This is something no Millbrook team has done. This group of seniors has been unbelievable. They took what everyone thought was a rebuilding year and they turned into a state finals team.”
Millbrook made its first state championship series after losing seven position players and two starting pitchers from a 2014 team that reached the state semifinals. The Wildcats were seeded No. 21 in the East 4A playoff bracket and made an improbable run to the finals. And after Friday’s 4-3 upset -- when the Panthers lined out seven times and looked listless -- Millbrook’s huge crowd may’ve thought a huge upset was possible.
Providence quickly slammed the door on all of that Saturday, battering every Millbrook pitcher it faced.
“Baseball is a cruel game sometimes and this was one of those times,” Millbrook coach James said. “ (Royalty) wasn’t as good with his location and he normally is. But, honestly, he wasn’t throwing that poorly. They just hit it. It was one of those times you have to tip your hat and clear it from your memory.”
So after 12 seasons of consistent winning and national rankings and always coming up short of the goal, Hignight and his Panthers don’t have to answer That Question anymore:
“So when are you going to win a state championship.”
The Panthers are the best 4A team in North Carolina. No doubt about it.
“We play with love in our heart and we play for each other,” Hignight said. “I know it’s cliche’ but it’s the truth. And we’re 31 and four and state champs in 4A. We’re pretty good.”