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Pitching, defense lead to Cougars' HHC sweep

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PENDLETON — The defending Hoosier Heritage Conference baseball champs started 2014 just as strongly as they ended 2013.

Four Greenfield-Central pitchers combined to hold Pendleton Heights to a single run in 14 innings as the visiting Cougars swept a season- opening doubleheader Saturday.

Starter Hayden Kissee and Mitch Gibson combined to keep the Arabians in check for a 3-1 Game 1 victory, then Seth Adams pitched five strong innings before letting Slater Rush close out a 5-0 win.

The effective mound work combined with mostly flawless defense and timely hitting was all a coach could ask for, especially in early April.

“We had a good day,” G-C coach Brian Murphy said. “It really was a good day. It wasn’t perfect, we still need to get better. But our pitchers threw really well. Defensively, I think we only had maybe two errors on the day. At the plate – everybody needs to get better at the plate this time of year – but I thought we bunted the ball pretty well. I thought we ran the bases real aggressively. It was a good day.”

The Cougars, who won a sectional title on this same field last May 28, escaped an early threat Saturday by Pendleton Heights, which fell to G-C 11-6 in the sectional quarterfinals a year ago.

In the bottom of the first inning of Game 1, the Arabians loaded the bases with one out. But Kissee struck out the Arabians’ Noah Etchison and fielded a grounder back to the mound by Mitchell Fowler to keep PH off the scoreboard.

In the ensuing top of the second, G-C’s Adams (walk), Jared Banton (error) and Syrus Fletcher (single) reached to open the frame and all came around to score; Fletcher’s base knock plated Adams, Banton scored on another PH error and Fletcher made it 3-0 following a wild pitch.

Back-to-back two-out singles from Austin Ellington and Thomas Hall gave the host squad its only run of the afternoon in the bottom of the second. The Arabians loaded the bases in the bottom of the fifth with two outs, but Gibson, who opened the frame in relief of Kissee, got Fowler to pop up to right field.

Fowler’s fly ball was one of five pop ups off the Arabians’ bats the final three innings of a windy afternoon Game 1, and all were fielded cleanly by G-C’s outfield of Austin Jackson (left), Dallas Pribble (center) and Ben Stephens (right).

“Our outfield is really good,” Murphy said. “Very rarely do you talk about that, but we’ve got probably five or six guys who can really play the outfield and cover some ground. And when you put them out there, it’s tough for the other team to get a ball to drop in. Especially when the wind was hanging the ball up, like it was today.”

In Game 2, Stephens did his part at the plate, as well. The senior went 2-for-2 with a walk, a stolen base and two runs scored, including the only tally the Cougars would need in the bottom of the third.

Stephens walked and later scored on a single by Gibson to make it 1-0. In the fourth,  Fletcher (G-C’s catcher) walked, stole second and scored on Stephens’ single for a 2-0 advantage. In the fifth, Gibson (walk) and Rush (double) scored to make it a 4-0 game — Gibson on an Adams sacrifice fly and Rush on an error. Stephens scored the final run in the sixth with a single, stolen base and a dash across the plate thanks to Rush’s second straight double.

Overall, Stephens – the Cougars’ No. 9 hitter – reached base in five of six plate appearances and finished the day with 3-for-4 with two walks and two stolen bases.

“He’s down at the bottom of the order, but not because he can’t swing,” Murphy said. “He just runs really well. It’s one of those where when you put him at the bottom he’s going to get a lot of fastballs, he’s going to get some pitches he can handle. And he did a nice job.”

The Cougars registered seven hits in Game 2 after only three hits in the opener opposite PH starter Quentin Miller and reliever Austin MacMillan.

Justin Kirkpatrick started for the Arabians in Game 2, but was ultimately no match for Adams, who allowed only three hits in five innings. The G-C junior retired 10 of the final 11 Arabians he faced.

Rush fanned three Pendleton Heights hitters in the final two innings.

The Kissee-Gibson, Adams-Rush pitching efforts were not unexpected by their coach.

“I’m impressed but I’m not surprised,” Murphy said. “I thought we’d have a chance to win early (in the season) if our pitching held up, and they did. Everyone threw well. Hayden got in a little jam in the first game, but I think that’s about it. So the guys threw really well.”

Greenfield-Central, which finished 11-3 in the HHC and 23-8-1 overall last year after a regional loss to Cathedral, opens 2014 with three straight conference doubleheaders on the road, continuing Friday in New Palestine.

“Everybody’s conference schedule is tough, but we go away to Pendleton – not easy,” Murphy commented. “Away to New Pal – not easy. And then away to Mt. Vernon – not easy.

“So now we go to New Pal with a little bit of confidence, like ‘Hey, we can play a little bit.’ We may win two, we may lose two, but we can play a little bit. So I think it’s real big. Even if we didn’t win both games (Saturday), just to play well was key, and I think we did that.”

Notes: G-C’s scheduled home opener Monday vs. Lawrence North was rained out. The Cougars will visit Roncalli Wednesday. … Rush, who started Game 1 at second and Game 3 at third, finished the day 4-for-5 with three doubles and two walks. … The Cougars went 6-for-6 on steal attempts. … PH, under former Greenfield-Central coach Travis Keesling, went 16-9 last year and tied for second in the conference with Mt. Vernon and New Palestine at 8-6. Pendleton Heights returns to HHC action Friday, April 25, at Yorktown.

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