SILER CITY — John Headen took one look around Jimmy Warfford Field, soaking in his surroundings with a faint smile on his face.
A few minutes earlier, Jordan-Matthews sophomore pitcher Ian McMillan downed the final Southwest Edgecombe batter on strikes, ending the game and catapulting the Jets to the second round of the NCHSAA 2A men’s baseball playoffs.
For Headen, the win meant more than your average playoff victory.
“I’m getting a little emotional,” Headen said with a laugh following the win.
After all, in seven seasons being the Jets’ head coach, he hadn’t won a single playoff game on Jimmy Warfford Field.
Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over the No. 24 Cougars marked the first home playoff win for the Jets since 2008, well before Headen’s first season in 2016.
It was also his first playoff win as head coach of the Jets. He was 0-1 in the playoffs at J-M entering this year’s tournament.
“It would’ve been nice to win a conference championship, but that’s not our goal. Our goal was getting into the playoffs and trying to do something,” Headen said. “I’d trade that for conference wins any day of the week. This is why you play high school baseball.”
On the surface, it’s a little surprising that this year’s Jets team was the one to break the 14-year drought.
Entering Tuesday’s playoff game, J-M had a 7-16 overall record (5-7 in the Mid-Carolina 1A/2A conference) and had lost seven games in a row with its last win coming on April 12, nearly a month earlier.
Headen, however, sees it differently. And he isn’t the least bit surprised.
“We’ve tried to have a playoff atmosphere for the past three weeks and we’ve played some tough teams and put ourselves in these situations,” he said. “We were setting ourselves up for this right here.”
The Jets’ eight losses in April came at the hands of some pretty stiff competition, including two close losses to the Morehead Panthers (19-5), a 5-1 loss to the 4A Chapel Hill Tigers (15-13), two blowout losses to the 3A Lee County Yellow Jackets (18-9) and a few narrow defeats to a couple of 1A/2A opponents.
While the losses may not look pretty on the schedule, Headen said the experience gained from those games was crucial, as shown by the team’s first-round performance.
It was clear that the Jets were prepared for a playoff atmosphere — in fact, they welcomed it.
Their first-round matchup with the Cougars (10-13) was a defensive slug-fest as the two teams’ starting pitchers combined for 14 strikeouts and six hits, allowing just one total earned run.
Conner Martin, one of the team’s most consistent arms, was on the mound for the Jets and threw a gem, allowing five hits and an earned run in 5.1 innings pitched.
His nerves got the best of him at first, putting himself in a tough situation from the get-go.
In the top of the first, Cougars junior Eli Alston smacked a line drive to center field to start things off, followed by a groundout that advanced him to second and another line drive by senior Jake Fuller to put runners on the corners with just one out.
But, in a puzzling turn of events that favored the Jets, senior Zack Carroll flied out as Alston trotted to home plate from third, originally appearing to give the Cougars an early 1-0 lead on a sacrifice fly.
However, while the play looked dead and most of the players were standing around once Alston touched home, Headen and the dugout began screaming for the Jets to throw the ball at third. They obliged, prompting the umpire to throw up his fist, calling Alston out at third for failing to tag before taking off, allowing the Jets to escape without any damage.
Martin proceeded to lock in.
In each of the second and third innings, he faced four Cougar batters, striking out a pair of them and allowing just two baserunners on walks. He relinquished no hits and no runs.
He admitted there were nerves before he took the mound for his first-ever playoff start, but that it didn’t take long for him to settle in.
“I was very nervous,” Martin said of his pre-game jitters. “I took a lot of deep breaths in-and-out (before the game), but it just felt good to release everything and let it go.”
The Jets finally got on the board with two outs in the bottom of the third thanks to some heads-up baserunning from McMillan, who capitalized on an errant throw to second base — which allowed him to get all the way to third on a stolen base attempt from first — and promptly score following an RBI right-field knock from junior Jackson Headen.
Fuller struck out senior Carson Whitehead in the next at-bat to quickly extinguish the Jets’ offensive flame, but J-M had officially drawn first blood, holding onto a 1-0 lead heading into the fourth inning.
Martin and Fuller continued to battle over the next couple of innings, with Fuller turning a four-pitch lead-off walk into three straight outs in the bottom of the fourth, followed by back-to-back 1-2-3 innings for both pitchers in the fifth with Fuller striking out the side in the bottom of the inning.
However, the Cougars got their first break in the top of the sixth when — after a single from Fuller through the 5 hole that prompted John Headen to switch out Martin in favor of McMillan — an error by Jackson Headen at shortstop allowed Carroll to reach first base untouched, placing runners at the corners with one out.
Southwest Edgecombe took advantage of Jordan-Matthews’ mistake, tying things up at 1 apiece on a liner from junior Dustin Lawson that scored Fuller, but suffered from a strike out and flyout in the next couple of at-bats to send it to the bottom of the sixth, giving J-M its opportunity.
While the Jets were no stranger to mishaps — dealing with bobbled balls in the infield, failed stolen base attempts and ice cold bats — they made sure to redeem themselves whenever possible.
“We know we’re going to make mistakes, we’ve proved that if you look at our stats, we’re going to make mistakes,” John Headen said, laughing. “It’s what we do after the mistake, which we’ve shown that we can overcome.”
One of the game’s final examples of the Jets fixing their mistakes came in the bottom of the sixth where, after giving up the tying run a half-inning earlier, they had their best offensive inning with seven total baserunners in a game-winning effort.
They reached base in myriad ways, with McMillan getting to first on an error to lead off the inning, followed by a bunt single from Jackson Headen and an intentional walk of Whitehead that loaded the bases with no outs.
But, in back-to-back plate appearances, the Jets saw senior Brenden Rivers and sophomore Kelton Fuquay ground into fielder’s choices, with a runner being thrown out at home each time, preventing the go-ahead run from scoring.
And just when it seemed like the Jets’ offense may squander the opportunity, junior Mason Phillips played first-round hero, slicing a single past the shortstop to score Whitehead and give J-M a 2-1 lead.
Jets freshman Quinn Woolford added an insurance run in the following at-bat, using his plate discipline to earn a bases-loaded walk on a full count to make it 3-1 and effectively seal the deal for J-M.
McMillan struck out two batters in the top of the seventh, including the final Cougar batter of the night, which prompted an emotional scream from the Jets’ sophomore as he propelled his team to postseason glory.
“We just try to scrap,” John Headen said. “We scrap, and if you take us lightly, that’s what’s going to happen.”
A couple of days later, Jordan-Matthews traveled nearly 140 miles to Roanoke Rapids to take on the No. 8-seeded Yellowjackets (13-8), where the Jets’ season ended in a 9-6 battle in the second round of the 2A playoffs.
It was a tough ending to an otherwise memorable season for J-M, one that saw its program take on plenty of formidable opponents, lock up a postseason spot midway through the year and break a decade and a half-long drought in an emotion-filled barnburner.
And even though his team was bounced in the second round, John Headen has a message for anyone considering playing baseball for the Jets next season.
“We play a (tough) schedule for a reason,” John Headen said before he walked off of Jimmy Warfford Field for the final time this season. “If you want to play baseball against good teams, this is where you come to do it.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here