Before Kyle Percival continued to celebrate with his Andrew Jackson teammates, the senior ran back near the edge of the infield and picked up a baseball.
It was the baseball Percival caught in his glove at first base for the final out Saturday that clinched Andrew Jackson’s 9-0 win over Gray Collegiate in the deciding game of the best-of-three Class 2A championship series.
It was the Volunteers’ first baseball state championship in school history and the first title in a boys team sport since a 1980 basketball championship.
“I gave it to my coach and said, ‘Guard this with your life,’ and he said, ‘Nobody is going to touch it,’ “ Percival said. “That ball will be back in my hands when we are done here. That ball is special. It is a symbol of what we accomplished. It took all of us to accomplish it and be with each other every step of the way. It was tough but we did it.
“It still doesn’t feel real that we are state champs. We were there last year and fell short. We came back this year and we are state champs now.”
The celebration continued for the Volunteers after the trophy presentation. Percival grabbed the trophy after a quick picture, took it toward the large group of Andrew Jackson fans who packed Francis Marion’s Sparrow Stadium and yelled, “This is for you!”
Andrew Jackson (31-2) lost to Legion Collegiate in last year’s championship, dropping the final two games after winning the opener. The Volunteers were preseason No. 1 team in Class 2A coaches poll and will finish in the top spot.
“Just to get back to this is so hard to do, but these young men, since Nov. 7, it has been their drive to get back here,” A.J. coach Mike Lucas said. “... I am so proud of them, first-class students and just so impressed with them.”
Percival, the Class 2A Player of the Year, had a huge role in the championship series. The North Carolina signee won both of the Volunteers’ games, pitching six innings in each appearance.
Percival allowed four hits, walked two and struck out nine Saturday. He fanned 22 batters in 12 innings during the series and also went 2-for-3 with an RBI in the clincher.
The loss ended the most successful season in Gray Collegiate baseball history. The War Eagles finished 28-7 and were making their first appearance in the state baseball championship series.
Gray was looking to complete the baseball-softball championship sweep. The War Eagles softball program won its first state championship Wednesday by sweeping Latta.
After losing the baseball series opener, Gray bounced back and won second game 6-4 to force a deciding game. But AJ’s six-run second inning put a big damper on the War Eagles’ chances.
“Getting here is part of the process. Andrew Jackson has been here and earned the right to win this game,” Gray coach Charles Assey Sr. said. “I firmly believe we have to take baby steps to get here, and I firmly believe we will be back.
“This group set the standard for all of this. The six seniors have been with me for four years and set the table for this. Our underclassmen are pretty darn good and hope to be back here next year.”
Andrew Jackson took control of the game in the second inning. With one out, Percival reached on an error and Foster Sims doubled to put runners at second and third.
Brady Jackson and Brady Williams followed with back-to-back RBI singles to make it 2-0. One batter later, Bryce Helms reached on an error on a miscommunication by two Gray outfielders and two more runs scored to make it 4-0.
Andrew Jackson added another run on a passed ball and Ashton Phillips delivered an RBI single to make it 6-0.
“We knew we had to play a perfect game,” Assey Sr said. “The six runs in second inning were result of a couple plays. And if we make those plays, we could be talking about a different ball game.”
The Volunteers scored three more in the fourth, two coming on Clemson commit Skylar Heglar’s two-run double.
WP: Kyle Percival LP: Brent Stukes. Hitters: GC: Brent Stukes 1-3; Gavin Creede 1-3; Kendrick Wright 1-3; JT Edwards 1-3. AJ: Landon PEavy 2-4; Ashton Phillips 2-4 RBI; Skyler Hegler 1-3 2 RBI; Kyle Percival 2-3 RBI; Brady Jackson 1-3 RBI; Brady Williams 1-3 RBI