ROME, Ga. — There are times in sports when magic happens and dreams get fulfilled. There are also times when those dreams are dashed.
The Ringgold High School baseball team, for the sixth time in program history, exited a state championship series on the losing side Friday night as Harlem won a pair of excruciating games, 5-3 and 2-1, in the GHSA Class AAA title matchup at AdventHealth Stadium. The Tigers, despite a long history of success, leave Rome having yet to win a state championship.
The Bulldogs won their sixth championship under legendary coach Jimmie Nelson and eighth overall, though it's their first since 1986. This is the third consecutive season Ringgold (32-9) and Harlem (35-1) have met in the postseason, with Harlem winning the past two meetings.
“Sometimes the game comes down to dudes making plays and, tonight at least, our dudes didn’t come through in big situations,” Ringgold coach Drew Walker said. “We had great chances to win both games, but sometimes that happens.”
For Ringgold, the sweep may be the hardest to swallow of the six near misses. The Tigers were one out away from winning game one when Harlem rallied for three runs. In game two, down a run in the sixth inning, they failed to score after having the bases loaded and no one out with the heart of the order up.
Game one was, as expected, a pitching duel between Ringgold's Ross Norman and Harlem ace Caiden Coile. The Bulldogs, thanks to single runs in the first and fourth innings, held a 2-1 lead heading into the bottom of the fifth inning as they forced the usually dominant Norman to go deep into counts.
The Tigers, though, put together four hits in the inning, including an RBI double from Norman and Aiden Hickman's RBI single, to take the lead.
Norman, who had just one perfect inning, stranded a runner on third in the sixth but wasn't as fortunate in the seventh. Tryston McCladdie, a thorn in the Tigers' side all day, started the winning rally with a single, with Will Holder following with a single and Emery Burnett a walk to load the bases.
Ringgold coach Drew Walker brought in closer Sam Crew, who struck out Jeremiah Hamilton on three pitches. Crew, though, unleashed a wild pitch moments later, tying the game. Tyler Simmons walked, and the next batter, Shane Wheeless, delivered a two-run single to left field.
Harlem closer Amerson Guy — the grandson of Pro Football Hall of Fame punter Ray Guy — retired the Tigers in order in the seventh to seal the win. Guy, after allowing a single to the first batter he faced after relieving Coile in the fifth, retired the final seven batters he faced.
“We’re up 3-2 with Ross on the mound and he had about 15 pitches left, so we felt really good about that, especially after getting the first out,” Walker said. “Sam came in and did a fantastic job with the quick strikeout, but we just couldn’t finish, and sometimes you have to be lucky. That ball that got by our catcher hit off the bricks, and I thought we were going to catch it and tag the runner out, but we didn’t, and the next guy got the big hit.”
Ringgold vs. Harlem baseball on May 19, 2023
Ringgold took a quick 1-0 lead in game two after Norman led off with a single, Hickman followed with a hit and Cade Tankersley delivered a sacrifice fly. Sebastian Haggard made the lead stand up through three perfect innings, but Harlem leadoff batter McCladdie, a Clemson University signee, led off the fourth inning with a long home run to right field.
Though Haggard escaped the inning without allowing another run, he walked two batters and, along with the Ringgold coaching staff, was becoming annoyed with the home plate umpire's strike zone.
The Bulldogs scored the eventual winning run in the fifth when Jeremiah Hamilton opened with a bloop hit to left and, one out later, Jackson Decker reached on an infield error. With runners on first and second and one out, Walker elected to intentionally walk McCladdie, and Holder made the Tigers pay with a sacrifice fly for the lead.
That run became even more painful in the bottom half when Ringgold loaded the bases with no one out and did not score after Holder got a questionable strike two on Tankersley before striking him out and Haggard grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Holder, who allowed just three hits, sat the Tigers down in order in the seventh to send the Bulldogs and their 800-plus wins coach to another title.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Walker said. “They worked their tails off all year, and they were able to come together in the offseason. That’s where they earned the confidence to get to this point. Those eight seniors are so tight, one of the best groups we’ve ever had.
“Their commitment and the way they worked will ensure they are never forgotten at Ringgold.”
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org.