06/11/04 — Princeton vs. South Stokes -- Guess who are the the under-Dogs?

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Princeton vs. South Stokes -- Guess who are the the under-Dogs?

By Gabe Whisnant
Published in Sports on June 11, 2004 2:48 PM

PRINCETON -- When Princeton, the third seed from the Class 1-A Carolina Conference, meets top-seeded South Stokes from the Northwest Conference in the N.C. High School Athletic Association championship series, it might appear on paper that the classic Old Testament tale of David vs. Goliath is rearing its head once again.

After all, the Sauras (28-3) are the two-time defending state champion with a pair of right-handed aces in junior Nick Conaway and Catawba College signee Timmy Smith. The duo has baffled the opposition, posting a combined record of 21-1.

The two anchor a staff that has 11 shutouts this season as South Stokes returns three starters and has six returning players from last year's championship squad.

Still, South Stokes coach Gary Nail and his team aren't looking past Princeton.

"We've told our kids that anybody that makes it this far is good," Nail said. "Records mean absolutely nothing at this point. It's a state championship, and on any given day anything can happen.

Indeed. Records, seedings and playing on the road hasn't phased the Bulldogs during their run to the best-of-three state championship. These Bulldogs (19-8) have been underdogs on paper before.

Princeton has defeated three top seeds on the road in Pamlico, Spring Creek and Williamston and knocked out the Carolina's second seed Ayden-Grifton in Littlefield. All the while, they seem to be comfortable in this role.

"We really like being the underdog," said Princeton's lone senior Zach Harmon. "It gives you more drive to be there. We like playing that role."

Just when their opponents might think they have the 'Dogs in their grasp, Princeton has kept its composure and played well beyond its years in winning five straight in the playoffs. On top of that, 14 of the Bulldogs' 19 wins have been in comeback fashion.

"I love it. I think teams underestimate us," Princeton first baseman Bren Hall said. "When teams get that lead on us, they think they have it won and get kind of careless and we are able to come back."

Their backs were particularly against the wall in the second and third rounds against familiar conference foes Ayden-Grifton and Spring Creek. The Bulldogs trailed 6-1 after three innings against the Chargers before right-handed junior Josh Thompson cooled down the Ayden-Grifton bats. The Princeton offense went on to outscore the Chargers 6-0 in innings four through eight in an extra innings win.

The Spring Creek match-up in front of 350 fans in Seven Springs was just as dramatic.

The Bulldogs posted a three-run rally in the sixth and scored once in the seventh against the Gators to erase a 5-2 lead and eventually win 6-5.

Coach Bruce Proctor's squad, who he calls the "cardiac kids," has an impeccable nature to rise above the odds and has a never-say-die attitude.

Harmon, believes a lot of their comeback ability has to do with good team chemistry.

"These guys are like my second family, as much time as we spend out here together," Harmon said. "I like that everyone has a leadership role. I try to spread it out and get these other guys who are coming back to be leaders too."

Now, Princeton finds itself two wins away from a state championship and will possibly face its most formidable pitching challenge in Conaway and Smith.

"It's nothing to be scared of," Hall said. "The harder they pitch it, the harder it comes off of the bat."

On top of that, Conaway is hitting a team-leading .538 with 10 home runs from the lead-off spot.

The Sauras' second hitter and sophomore Dustin Ackley boasts a .405 mark with 36 RBI and eight homers.

Proctor's squad counters with catcher/pitcher Dustin Myers, who is hitting .395 with three home runs and 27 RBI. Steady, everyday second baseman Brandon Pate has a .330 average with 25 runs scored.

On top of his stellar postseason pitching performances, Thompson is hitting a blistering .583 in the playoffs.

Despite their seeding difference, Princeton and South Stokes have had somewhat similar playoff roads. Both defeated conference foes in the second and third rounds before sweeping their respective regional championships.

2004 N.C. High School Athletic Association

Class 2-A Baseball Championship Series

(at Five County Stadium, Zebulon)

Saturday's games

Game 1 -- Princeton vs. South Stokes, 11 a.m.

Game 2 -- Princeton vs. South Stokes, 7 p.m.

Sunday's game

Game 3 -- if necessary, 4 p.m.