Matt Lewellen has been to the baseball state semifinals three times with Grafton, one as a player and two as a coach. Jamestown reached that stage just two years ago.
Neither Bay Rivers District program has played for a state championship, but one will do so for sure on Saturday at Salem Memorial Stadium. The reason is that Grafton (22-2) meets Jamestown (18-5) in the Class 4 semifinals at 10 a.m. Friday at Kiwanis Field in Salem.
Kiwanis, a Depression-era park that opened during Herbert Hoover’s final year (1932) as president, conjures memories for Lewellen. He was the second baseman for the 2000 Clippers, who played there in the state semis.
His head coach was Bob McConnell, who died in April. A Clippers assistant in 2000 was Henry Connell, who died more than three years ago after helping Lewellen-coached Grafton teams reach the state semis in 2012 and ’14.
“With Coach McConnell passing this year and Coach Connell a few years back, I know they’re looking down on us happy as can be,” Lewellen said. “It’s a nice little ballpark to play in, and hopefully the fourth time making the state semis in school history will make it memorable because we come out with a win.
“If we play our game the way we’ve been playing, and I trust the guys, then we’ll be ready.”
Jamestown coach John Cole is as much an expert as anyone how effective Grafton’s game can be. His Eagles have lost three times this season to the Clippers in a variety of ways.
Grafton dominated in every phase in winning the first meeting 15-0 at Jamestown in March. A month later, they were tied until Adam Sanders hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the seventh inning to give the Clippers a 1-0 home win.
Jamestown was probably its most competitive in the three games in a 4-2 defeat at Grafton last week for the Region 4A championship. The Eagles failed to score twice with the bases loaded and fewer than two outs, making Cole eager for a fourth meeting.
“Be careful what you ask for,” Cole joked on Wednesday. “Grafton is a well-rounded team with no weak spots.
“They’re well-coached and have great kids, so we’ll have our hands full. We have a plan for them and we’ll see if it works.”
But, as Mike Tyson famously said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, and Grafton has packed a wallop this season. The Clippers are averaging nine runs per game and have scored in double figures in half of their 24 games.
The Clippers can win low-scoring games, thanks to the area’s best starting pitching tandem, Trey Gibson and Andrew Shartzer. Gibson shut out Powhatan 3-0 in the state quarterfinals, and Shartzer, who likely will start Friday, has allowed just two runs in 14 innings against Jamestown.
Grafton’s defense is air-tight as well and is particularly stellar on the left side, with Jack Daszkowski at third base and Zach Wojnarowski at shortstop. In addition to hitting nearly .500 much of the season, North Carolina Central recruit Justin Bowers has been a defensive standout in center field.
“The thing I like most about this team is that they are close-knit and play for each other,” Lewellen said. “We’re looking forward to driving four hours to play Jamestown a fourth time.
“It will be a competitive game because we know how they do things and they know how we do things. Coach Cole has done a fantastic job with those guys.”
While Jamestown was a combined 42-6 the previous two seasons, this is arguably Cole’s best coaching job in his three seasons at the school. The Eagles lack the depth and, most particularly, the offensive punch they had a year ago.
But Jamestown’s bats have improved, as evidenced by the 13 hits in the 7-3 win at Dinwiddie in the state quarterfinals. The Eagles are batting a respectable .306, led by Matt Lansford (.375, 18 RBI) and E.A. Woolwine (.373, 13 RBI).
Speed and solid defense, which were trademarks for Jamestown’s district championship teams the previous two seasons, are back full-force. As always, the Eagles boast one of the area’s top pitchers in Woolwine (11-1, 1.09 earned-run average), although he probably won’t be available against Grafton after pitching a complete game at Dinwiddie.
That means the Eagles will need to get another good outing from the likes of Spencer Pietruszynski and Hunter Pegram, who limited Grafton to three hits in the regional final. If so, it might be surging Jamestown that plays in its first state championship game.
“We played like men at Dinwiddie,” Cole said. “We did a lot of things well.
“When you start playing well on the road, you get more confident and play tougher. Everybody knew Grafton was going to be the team to beat this year, so we’re excited to get another shot at them and it will be quite a challenge.”
O’Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963 and on Twitter @MartyOBrienDP