A playoff loss, but not an ending, for Wolverines

They will realize one day that this wasn’t an ending.

Certainly, Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to Roxboro Community School in the third round of the state 1A baseball playoffs closed the athletic careers of eight Polk County seniors. They lingered in the outfield of The Bottoms long after Bulldog closer Michael Clayton struck out the side in the bottom of the seventh, hugs and tears the emotional currency of the moment, shared freely among all.

Silence, punctuated only by the cheers of a Roxboro team (18-4) bound for a quarterfinal showdown with top-seeded East Surry, lingered as the eight seniors and their teammates finally and slowly made their way off the field for the final time, a 13-game winning streak at an end, no more baseball to be played.

They will realize one day that this wasn’t an ending.

“We had those guys three years, and you just had to look to see where they’ve brought this program,” said Polk County head coach Billy Alm. “I told them to look, the whole community was here supporting us.”

Support the Wolverines, an overflow crowd did, and certainly there were opportunities for Polk County to provide the gathering a different ending. Elijah Sutton’s one-out single in the second inning, Polk’s first hit, led to Sutton stealing second and moving to third on a passed ball with two outs, only to remain there as a fly ball ended the chance. Polk had two runners on with two outs in the third, only to see another fly ball halt that threat.

Kaleb Kropp singled with one out in the fourth, but again a fly ball ended the inning. The sixth closed with Nick Capozzi on third after a one-out double and Sutton on second after a walk and steal, the tying run left in scoring position.

And then Clayton, so solid as Roxboro’s closer this postseason, worked flawlessly through the final three Polk County batters in the bottom of the seventh.

“We had runners in scoring position several times and couldn’t get the big hit,” Alm said. “That’s baseball.”

Polk County second baseman Evan Rimer completes a double play in the bottom of the third inning of Tuesday’s game.

So is taking advantage of opportunities, and Roxboro did that. The Bulldogs turned a hit and four walks into a run in the first inning. They got another in the sixth on a double, sacrifice bunt and wild pitch. The final run came in the top of the seventh on a single, Polk County error and sacrifice fly. No errors, just three walks and three hits allowed – Roxboro more than deserved its opportunity to play another day.

Polk County senior Avery Edwards, making his second playoff start in six days, allowed just five hits and didn’t walk a batter after the first. He and his seven fellow seniors did all they could to fashion a different result.

They will realize one day that this wasn’t an ending.

“We barreled up a bunch of baseballs,” Alm said. “The ball wasn’t carrying. We didn’t have that south wind (as in Thursday’s 7-6 win over Pine Lake Prep). We barreled a bunch of balls and put them in the air and made easy outs. We only had three strikeouts. We put the ball in play and made them make plays.”

Make plays? That’s largely all Polk County’s senior class has done for two years. Thiry-eight wins, matching the most in any two-year span in school history. Back-to-back Western Highlands Conference championships. A perfect 15-0 conference record as juniors. Two playoff victories. A brand-new training facility gleaming in the outfield.

“They’ve definitely built a foundation,” Alm said. “They’ve laid the trail. They’ve set expectations for the young guys and have been a great group of seniors. I’ve never had such a close-knit team. They took care of each other and picked each other up.

“If you had told me we’d be here in three years, I’d have probably laughed at you. They’ve been incredible.”

They’ve created a beginning, a moment in time they’ll one day point back to with pride.

And they will realize that this wasn’t an ending.

Polk County senior Elijah Sutton steals second base in the second inning.