Baseball finals full of memorable moments for West Forsyth

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 12, 2014

They came. They saw. They did not disappoint.
Last week’s Clemmons Courier listed 10 reasons why you should make the drive to Greensboro to watch the West Forsyth baseball team compete against Richmond County for the NCHSAA 4-A state title.
The Titans delivered on every one.
If you were in attendance on Saturday at the picturesque UNC-Greensboro baseball stadium — host site for the 4-A state finals this year — you got the chance to experience the thrill of watching euphoric West players storm the mound in victory.
Together they formed the best “Titan Tower” since coach Odie Biggs introduced the concept at the beginning of West football games way back in 1977. The difference between those old-school pile-ons and this one was that this time there was actually something to celebrate.
There was also the joy of watching three of West’s finest — seniors Tripp Shelton, Michael Bates and Travis Holden — close out their prep careers in style.
Shelton and Bates, two UNCG signees, made impressive debuts at their future home field.
Bates pitched a complete game to capture the win in Game 1 while Shelton played flawless defense at shortstop and crushed a crucial three-run homer to help West pull off a 6-3 win in the series clincher.
Holden, who will be pitching for Appalachian State University when his college career begins this fall, provided an even more compelling story.
As the starting pitcher in Game 2, he endured an uncharacteristically bad outing, getting chased in the second inning due to poor control and a combination of Richmond hits and Titan defensive mistakes.
But after regrouping mentally during the four-hour lull between games 2 and 3, he bounced back. Taking over for starter Jake Mayhew in the the fifth inning of Game 3, Holden protected a three-run lead by getting the final seven outs. His last pitch, a grunt-driven, all-he’s-got fastball, produced a truly special K — one that triggered a 20-foot high glove fling (by Holden himself) and touched off a wild mound celebration that culminated with a gatorade shower for Titan rookie head coach Brad Bullard.
As promised, the West underclassmen delivered too. Mayhew took the hill in Game 3 and threw a gem, gaining the win by allowing just three runs in 4 2/3 innings of outstanding work. Blending an excellent fastball with effective off-speed stuff, Mayhew kept the Richmond hitters guessing and produced four desperately-needed shutout frames.
Sophomore third baseman Alex Vanderstok took home the MVP award by going 7-for-12 in the series, including a double and triple in the final game.
He also showed guts, challenging each Richmond hitter in a relief appearance in Game 2 and holding his head high after giving up the final two runs in an 8-7 loss.
And that wasn’t the only pain he dealt with.
Diving for a shot by the third base bag midway into game three, he hobbled in agony and had Titan fans on edge as he stayed on the ground for five minutes with a hip injury.
After slowly getting to his feet, Vanderstok shook off the pain, taped up a blood-stained forearm (another result of his all-out dive) and stayed in the game.
But the Titans did more than just overcome physical obstacles. They delivered on an emotional level as well.
As if scripted in Hollywood, Titan senior catcher Zach French drove in the first run of Game 3 and then recorded the final putout to seal the championship win.
French, who lost his father, Andrew, to a fatal heart attack at a game played in early March, was then besiged by a series of supportive hugs — from teammates, coaches, West staff, parents and just about anyone else who knew about his amazing season-long journey.
Afterwards, he tearfully credited his dad with providing the extra help the Titans needed during tough situations. He also dedicated the season to him. It was a special moment for a young man who deserved one.
There were other heartfelt moments as well.
Titan head coach Brad Bullard welled up when he received a post-game bear hug from his dad and mentor, Jack Bullard.
Larry Walker, father of late Titan all-star pitcher Erik Walker, was also there to congratulate Bullard. Prior to his passing in 2006, Erik had been best friends with Brad, sharing the field with him since they were kids. They were also teammates on the ‘02 West team that reached the state finals.
Larry received thanks from West players – many of whom he coached in fall ball when they were freshmen and sophomores.
Randy Pope, who coached the Titans to 200-plus wins and their first appearance in the state finals, fittingly joined the post-game festivities. He congratulated an outstanding group of seniors that he coached to the final eight in the 4A playoffs last spring.
Kevin McIntosh, a longtime assistant coach who stepped down after last season to become a full-time assistant AD, was also there. Like Pope, he has also worked extensively with this group of Titans.
The West fans, the team’s 10th man, made their presence felt as well. Packing the stands along the West side of the field for all three games, the Titan supporters cheered enthusiastically for every West success.
The roar they generated during a major comeback in Game 2 was unforgettable. Clutch hits by Aaron Stamper, Alex Saphar and Nick Adams rocked the stands and helped West get within two outs of a series sweep.
And finally, there was a triumph over a longtime nemisis.
West was able to avenge a last-second loss to Richmond County in the 1990 football championship.
The ball bounced Richmond’s way that night. But this time there were no magic bounces. It was West who took advantage of Raider mistakes — two major errors in Game 1 and a key baserunning mistake in Game 3 — to secure the title.
It took five decades and a series of heartbreaking near-misses along the way, but West Forsyth finally owns a boys team state title.
And it could not have happened to a more deserving bunch.