The benches cleared before the first pitch Wednesday at Harlem High School, as coach Jimmie Lewis and his Bulldogs sprinted toward the visiting Lakeside Panthers.
This wasn't the beginning of a baseball brawl. The Columbia County squads met alongside the third-base line for a pre-game prayer and to exchange pleasantries.
The players shook hands and wished each other good luck, gestures on a cool March day which proved that there really is no heated rivalry between Lakeside and Harlem.
"We want to win, and we're going after it, but I've kinda come to realize that baseball's a game," Lewis said. "You play it hard and give it all you've got, and when it's over, it ain't life and death."
Wednesday was all about the national pastime, the cheers of fans and the smell of popcorn in the air, and the mutual respect between two proud programs.
"When we started off at Lakeside our first year, the object was to have a program like Harlem and Evans, and Westside. We've pretty much done that," said Jimmy Smith, who has coached the Panthers since the team's inaugural season in 1989.
Even after an impressive 5-1 win Wednesday, the Panthers weren't trash- talking. "Harlem always has a good team, so it's always great to beat these guys," Lakeside senior Jonathan Crawford said.
The Panthers pushed across three runs in the top of the first, thanks to a single by Chris Banker (who went 3-for-3 with an RBI), a two-run double by Richard Flake and an error by Harlem.
From there, Crawford did the rest with a masterful performance on the mound. Crawford mixed up his offerings, painted the corners with fastballs and curves, and constantly worked ahead in the count.
The Lakeside right-hander struck out eight and allowed just three hits. Crawford's only mistake came in the first, when Matt Lewis launched a homer to account for Harlem's lone run.
Crawford mowed down 13 of the last 14 Harlem batters, and the contest concluded when Lakeside shortstop Paul Bordon fielded a sharp grounder and fired to first baseman Dustin Tyra.
"Knowing you have some runs to work with helps the whole team out," Crawford said. "Getting an early lead takes a weight off your shoulders and you can play some good fundamental baseball."
Lakeside played error-free defense, but Harlem had some miscues in the field. Still, Harlem pitchers Felix Chinea and Clayton Bruce worked out of several jams, and appear ready to provide some help for senior ace Jordan Whitaker.
"I was proud of our two pitchers," Lewis said. "We wanted to see what Chinea and Bruce could do, and we saw something tonight. We might have a little more pitching depth than we thought."
Lakeside was just one team in a long line of tough nonregion opponents for Harlem, and despite coming up short last week, the Dogs are looking forward to battling in Region 3-AAA.
"The chemistry's there and everybody is working hard together," Harlem senior James Davis said. "We're going to concentrate on the positive things we're doing and try to eliminate the negatives. We want to improve as we go on so we'll be ready for region."
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