A game three wasn't necessary after River Bluff's 9-7 win over Blythewood won them the 5A state championship Wednesday night.
Head coach Mark Bonnette was in this position for the third time as the coach of the River Bluff High School Gators. It was the third time he took his team to a state championship series and won the first game. In both instances, they lost the final two games and lost the series. This time, there would not even be a need for a game three as the Gators beat the Blythewood Bengals 9-7 to win the 2023 5A State Championship.
“I’m so lucky. The coaches that I work with, all three Tommy Mishoe, Lucas Hummers and the guys I work with put so much into it,” Bonnette said. “We’ve been so close here and it’s the ninth or tenth year of the school and only nine years we’ve finished a year. This is our third time getting to play for it and there’s been some heartbreak. But this team was special.”
The eagerness to avoid the dreaded third game was evident in the first inning. The Gators jumped out to a 2-0 lead when Thomas Powell’s RBI single and Weston Grant’s RBI fielder’s choice gave them a lead before Blythewood had a chance to bat.
That lead, however, was very brief. A Blythewood grand slam that was hit off the top of the left field scoreboard gave the Bengals a 4-2 lead and sent the home crowd into a frenzy.
When River Bluff took their turn to hit in the second inning, they continued to rough up Blythewood pitching. With runners on the corners and two outs, Colby Reynolds legged out an infield single to score Myles Proffitt and cut the deficit to 4-3. Beau Hollins stepped up to the plate and crushed a pitch out to right center field to clear the bases for his 18th home run of the year and give his team a 6-4 lead that they took into the bottom of the second inning.
Just like the first inning, Blythewood responded and regained the lead after the second. A sacrifice fly ball to right field brought home a run and a bases loaded error brought in two more. With the Bengals now leading 7-6, Andrew Vaughan came in to relieve Powell. The Bengals didn’t score the rest of the game.
“Andrew has been in so many big moments,” Bonnette said. “It was a tough call to go to him but he’s been our guy going to the ‘pen. Thomas has been amazing all year and tonight wasn’t his night on the mound necessarily. But for Andrew to come in there and right the ship for us and put zeros on the board, I want to say we put five straight zeros on the board.”
Vaughan says that his main focus was to step in and avoid walks and mistakes in the strike zone.
“I just wanted to go out there, slow the pace of the game down, throw strikes and then give our team a chance to win,” Vaughan said.
In the top of the fifth inning, Logan Busbee hit a bloop single and Mattie Garris got hit by a pitch to set the table for lead-off man Walker Mitchell. Mitchell’s clutch line drive double scored Busbee and tied the game at seven.
The game remained tied until the seventh and final inning. Grant led off the inning and immediately got on base after he was hit by a pitch. Grant took second base after Blythewood catcher Macon Leppert struggled with a pitch and couldn’t throw him out. A wild pick-off attempt at second base sent Grant to third with no outs. Wyatt McPherson drew a walk which prompted Bonnette to bring in Coleman Szuhy as a courtesy runner for his catcher. During the next at-bat, a wild pitch scored Grant from third and gave the Gators a late 8-7 lead.
“I wasn’t gonna make any dumb mistakes,” Grant said. “But once I saw that ball go to the backstop, I just took off hoping that it wouldn’t come back to him and score the run. And we kept adding on after that.”
The “adding on” Grant alluded to occurred when Proffitt bunted to move Szuhy over to third base and set up the next scoring play. Busbee grounded a pitch to third base and the throw went home. The throw beat Szuhy but was dropped, allowing Szuhy to slide in without being tagged to score and give River Bluff a 9-7 lead.
In the bottom of the seventh, Vaughan and the Gator defensive unit took down the Bengals in order. On the last play, Hollins fielded a ground ball at first and jogged over to the bag to record the final out and officially crown River Bluff the South Carolina 5A state champions for the first time in school history.
The Gators dugout and fans spilled out onto the field to celebrate the accomplishment. The team lined up for the trophy presentation and then continued the celebration over on the left side of the field. Bonnette stayed over near home plate to field questions, where he maintained poised and composed while talking about one of the greatest accomplishments of his coaching career and recalling the events that led a special team to achieve such a special accomplishment.
But that same poise his team showed to fight back and tie the game and eventually take the lead in the seventh only carried over to his postgame availability for a few short moments. The emotion of the moment and seeing his wife and children ultimately got to him as he recalled the time he misses out on them during a busy season.
“I can’t wait to celebrate with them,” he says as he emotionally ended his interviews and embraced his family as a state champion.
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