Lakeside High School has not made it easy during three rounds of the state baseball playoffs.
But "easy" is not really the Panthers' style, as they proved Wednesday with a third consecutive series victory extended to the full allotment of three games.
"For some reason, we've been struggling just about every first game," said senior Zach Hayden, who shut down the Northgate offense in relief in Game 2 to earn the save. "We put ourselves in the pressure of a Game 3.
"I'm surprised we got this many hits today," Hayden said after Tuesday's 11-4 Game 2 win that forced the decisive final game. "Usually, Game 3s are our big games."
Turns out Hayden's predictions are pretty accurate. Lakeside got down in the first inning Wednesday, but the Panthers stormed back, scoring four runs in the third inning and adding another in the fifth in a clinching 5-2 victory.
Game 1 featured a pair of complete games, one from Lakeside's Jeffrey Stoner and the other from Northgate's Conner Kendrick, who earned the win in a tight, 3-1 game.
Stoner struck out eight, while allowing only a third-inning run and a two-run homer in the sixth.
The Panthers threatened several times, but stranded runners in four of the seven innings.
They loaded the bases in the second inning on singles by Wil Hogan, Clayton Miller and Stoner, but an infield fly and a double play ended the inning.
In the fourth, Miller doubled to put runners on second and third. Stoner then flew out to right-fielder Ryan Smith, who threw out Hogan at the plate to end the threat.
Game 2 was all Lakeside, as the Panthers pounded out 18 hits and scored early and often. Ben Black, who earned the win on the mound, homered in the first inning to start off the scoring barrage.
"It felt great, because I didn't hit great in the first game," Black said. "I don't have too much power, but every now and then it comes out."
Seniors Black and Hayden contributed at the plate to go along with their strong pitching performances. Both went 3 for 5 with a home run and three RBI.
Hayden's homer was the first of back-to-back shots along with Derek Russo.
Fast forward to Wednesday, with the series and a spot among the state's final four on the line.
Hogan started the game, allowing two early runs before settling down. After the first inning, he allowed just two more hits before giving way to Stoner in the fourth inning.
Stoner retired 11 of the 13 batters he faced to earn a lengthy save, going more than three innings.
Offensively, Kody Belcher led the way. The Panthers' only junior in Wednesday's starting lineup went 3 for 4 with three RBI, two of which came on a third-inning double that plated the tying and go-ahead runs.
Belcher knows he'll have one more season at Lakeside. The seniors, however, are playing each game as if it could be their last.
"It's exciting," Belcher said. "Every series, we've gone to three games. It's real big for (the seniors). They want it. They want it real bad."
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