For the third consecutive series, Lakeside High School came up big in a decisive Game 3 to keep its season alive. The senior-laden team is now headed to Wayne County tomorrow to begin the best of three state semifinal round.
The Panthers grinded out a 5-2 win over defending state champion Northgate on Wednesday to improve to 27-6 and earn a spot in the final four for the first time since 1993.
Kody Belcher was the offensive star, driving in three runs and finishing 3 for 4 at the plate. On the mound, Wil Hogan survived a rocky start and combined with Panther ace Jeffrey Stoner to help Lakeside advance.
Next up is a trip to No. 4 Wayne County (29-3) and a match-up with one of the best offenses in Georgia. Wayne County also happens to be the new home of former Lakeside head football coach Jody Grooms. Grooms led the Panthers to their finest season in school history on the gridiron, but stepped down after the season to take the head football coach and athletic director post for the Gators.
The Panthers will need tremendous performances from their pitchers if they plan on getting to the championship series for the first time in school history. Wayne County features a pair of junior sluggers who might form the best one-two punch in Georgia.
Shortstop Tyler Palmer, a University of Georgia commitment, is among the best all-around talents in the Peach State. Palmer hits for power, hits for average, and is a gifted defensive infielder.
Junior third baseman Casey Kicklighter might only be 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, but he is five home runs away from the state's all-time single season home-run mark. The record, 25 homers in a single season, is shared by Brodie Pullen (Calhoun) and Micah Owings (Gainesville).
Kicklighter set the school record for home runs in a season as a sophomore in 2009, but this year he has been even better. He blasted a pair of homers in Wayne County's quarterfinal sweep of Sprayberry to give him 20 homers for the season.
On the mound, Hunter Thompson is the ace for the Gators. He started both games of their doubleheader sweep of Sprayberry in the quarterfinals. He worked four innings in an 11-1 victory in Game 1, then came back to work six innings in a 7-2 win in the clincher. The victories pushed his record to 11-0 on the season. The Gators can also use Palmer and senior Dylan Brown on the mound. Both have been outstanding all year.
While Wayne County might have a lot of hype surrounding their team, Lakeside plays with as much heart as any team you will ever see. The question might not be whether Lakeside can match Wayne County's talent, but whether Wayne County can match the Panthers' grit and determination.
The Panthers' gutsy trio of Stoner, Hogan and Ben Black are not flashy, but they just get the job done.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.