ROCKINGHAM — Three games. Three wins. Three shutouts.
Not a bad way for the Richmond Senior baseball team to start the state 4A baseball playoffs.
Ryan Mercer blanked Jack Britt 4-0 in the opener before following it up with a 3-0 win over New Bern Friday. Nic Bullard pitched a one-hitter in the Raiders’ 8-0 win vs. Hoggard last week and will toe the rubber against Ashley at 6 p.m. today.
However, recent history doesn’t bode well for the Raiders.
Since 2007, only three other schools have opened the postseason with three consecutive shutouts.
Cherryville cruised into the fourth round last season with victories over West Wilkes (13-0), Rosman (10-0) and Hendersonville (5-0). The Ironmen were eliminated by Murphy 5-4 in the sectional round.
The last 4A school to post three straight playoff shutouts before the Raiders accomplished the feat was South Caldwell in 2008. The Spartans blanked Ashbrook (7-0), Mount Tabor (9-0) and Weddington (4-0). South Caldwell, which had only one loss in the regular season, was knocked out of the postseason in the fourth round by Providence 10-4.
In 2007, East Rutherford avoided the curse and went on to grab the 2A state title. The Cavaliers opened the playoffs by cruising past Bunker Hill (10-0), North Henderson (20-0) and Salisbury (10-0). In the sectional round, East Rutherford allowed its first runs of the postseason in a 12-2 victory over Shelby. The Cavaliers shut out West Lincoln 11-0 in the first game of the West Regional Series before advancing to the championship series with a 16-4 win.
“We knew all year our strength was going to be our pitching and defense,” Richmond coach Ricky Young said. “We would love to have another shutout, but we know that it is going to be tough to do. We are going to go out there and throw strikes.”
Young has guided a team to the sectional round and beyond before in his coaching career. While at West Columbus, Young took the Vikings to the 2006 championship series before falling to Chatham Central two games to one. The Raiders haven’t been this far in the playoffs since 2007, when Ashley knocked out Richmond 5-2 in the sectional round.
Young said this year’s Richmond squad is very similar to his 2006 Viking team.
“Both teams had a lot of team speed and good pitching,” Young said. “I think the biggest difference is that the West Columbus team was senior heavy and had more experience, while this team is very young. That’s not a bad thing.
“The players have bought into the system and what we are trying to accomplish. Not who the opponent is.”
The Eagles enter tonight’s contest with a 19-6 record and defeated the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament champion, Scotland, 5-3 Friday night.
Ashley is hitting .309 as a team, led by Chance Shepard. The senior is hitting .413 with six home runs and 19 runs batted in. Shane Shepard is batting just below .400, at .397. The sophomore is tied for the team lead with 19 RBIs. Chris Hicks has two home runs, 13 RBIs and is hitting .378 on the year. Christian Wolfe is the last Ashley batter over the .370 mark, with a .373 average, two home runs and 14 RBIs.
“The top of their order is putting up big numbers,” Young said. “We can’t focus on that, we need to focus on what we need to do to win.”
The winner of tonight’s sectional round contest with face the victor of the Middle Creek-Millbrook contest in the East Regional Series beginning Thursday.
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org