quote:Hardin Valley Academy continued its amazing ascension in District 3-AAA baseball Thursday night.
The visiting Hawks, in just their fourth season of varsity baseball, won their second 3-AAA tournament title in a row with a 4-1 victory over Halls.
Don't look for Hardin Valley to go away anytime soon.
Hard-throwing freshman pitcher Will Neely went the distance for the Hawks (23-12), striking out seven, walking four and allowing just five hits.
"It was an important spot to put a freshman in, and he answered the bell," said HVA coach Kirk Renegar.
The Hawks entertain Bearden in Monday's Region 2 semifinals. Halls (25-6) has the unenviable task of playing at four-time defending state champion Farragut.
Monday's semifinal winners advance to Wednesday's regional finals and qualify for the state sectionals.
While a freshman led the way for the Hawks against Halls, Renegar said the program's rapid rise can be traced to an outstanding senior class that took its lumps early in their careers.
"It's a tremendous testimony to our senior class," said Renegar.
"The seniors were part of a 4-29 club that first year. They've built something special."
The Hawks broke open a scoreless game with three runs in the top of the fourth inning.
Pinch hitter Zach Sears chased home the first run with a bases-loaded single by shortstop.
Anthony Gambuzza then knocked in two runs with a single between first and second bases.
Halls manufactured a run in the fifth after Aaron Hardy singled and eventually scored on an error, but the Red Devils
stranded two base runners in the inning.
Gambuzza added an RBI single over third base in the sixth inning, scoring Ian Pung from second to make it 4-1.
After retiring Thomas Corcione on a line drive for the game's final out, Neely was mobbed by his teammates on the mound.
"I feel fine, except for my face," said the dirt-covered Neely with a laugh.
"I think I was on tonight. It feels great."
Neely, who said he has been clocked as high as 87 mph, provided the Hawks with their fourth complete game by a pitcher in the tournament.
"We had some tremendous pitching, and it's also a testament to our defense," said Renegar.
The Hawks will try and take another step by winning Monday's regional.
"Bearden will be a heck of a challenge," said Renegar.
"They're a tremendous ball team with a great tradition. We're looking forward to competing with them."
Mike Blackerby is a freelance contributor.