The Clayton Little League Juniors’ all-star team earned its first state title in the 13-14-year-old division as Clayton swept through the double elimination tournament unscathed and defeated Wilkes County 6-2 on July 25 for the state championship.
Although never having to enter the loser’s bracket, Clayton was forced to come from behind for three of the victories and won the four games held at Freedom High School in Morganton by a combined total of eight runs.
After three come-from-behind wins put Clayton in position to win the state title, Clayton pitchers John Suarez and Matt Smigelski made sure their team didn’t get into a hole in the final.
Suarez earned the win allowing just two runs on three hits in six and a third innings while Smigelski nailed down the final two outs in the seventh inning to preserve the victory.
Between Clayton’s two pitchers, Wilkes County, who reached the championship thanks to three consecutive elimination game victories, was retired in order in five of the seven innings.
In addition to the solid pitching, a couple of outstanding defensive plays turned in by shortstop Zeke Urias Rivera helped keep Wilkes County from closing the gap generated by Rivera’s RBI single and Luke Rhoades’ two-run scoring double both in the third inning.
“John and Zeke were outstanding for us today,” Clayton coach Lance Rhoades told the Wilkes Journal-Patriot. “John kept them off-balance and Zeke made so many big plays up the middle that took away base hits.
“Both guys have been playing with us for six years and that experience showed throughout the tournament.”
It was that experience that helped Clayton rally in each of its first three games en route to the championship.
Clayton sent Wilkes County to the loser’s bracket in the opening game of the tournament coming back from an early three-run deficit.
Rhoades reached base in the top of the eighth with a double and would later score the eventual game-winning run on a passed ball to grab the 8-7 opening victory.
Down five runs in its second game against Rutherfordton, Clayton rallied to tie the game at 6-6 in the sixth inning when Rivera’s double scored both Jared Cox and Omar Urias Rivera. Suarez than came through and brought home Rivera with a RBI single for the improbable 7-6 triumph.
Against Southwest Forsyth in the winner’s bracket finale, Clayton fell behind yet again by three runs after just two innings.
Undeterred, Clayton put together an impressive six-run sixth inning spearheaded by RBI singles from Landen Leiser, Tanner Rhyne and Omar Urias Rivera to take a three-run lead of its own before hanging on for the 9-7 win.
Clayton advanced to the Southeast Regional Tournament held in Greenville, S.C. which started Friday and continues through Aug. 6.