by BRYAN EVERSON
Joey Stark sent his fellow graduating teammates out with a bang in their final regular-season game Tuesday evening.
The team captain picked an opportune time to hit his first career home run, bashing it out with a runner on base to give Athens an early lead and help take out Clarkston Everest Collegiate 10- 0 over five innings on Senior Day.
“It was great to finally hit a home run on Senior Day,” Stark said. “I’ve been getting close, it was nice to put one over to help us win.”
“I think our bats are definitely coming alive. We were slow at the beginning of the year, but we’re starting to hit the ball well at the perfect time.”
Athens coach Mike Morris said that he’s seen evidence of his team’s power beginning to come along as the year has progressed.
Stark’s home run helped the Red Hawks take an early three-run lead that the team would extend in the bottom of the third. Sophomore Ben Riffe drew a lead-off walk and a hard single between short stop and third by junior Kyle Sweeney helped start it off right offensively, and Logan Frost laid down a bunt single to load the bases with no outs.
Clark Joslin was able to draw a full count and hit a sacrifice grounder to drive in Riffe, and Michael Delong followed that off with a bunt to sacrifice himself and score Sweeney, making it 5- 0 in favor of Athens. The scoring may have been done there if not for an error on Shane Jackson’s hit to third, allowing Frost to score. Jackson proceeded to steal second after reaching safely, and Jeremy Murphy’s pop fly to right field was also dropped thereafter to let Jackson cross home plate and add the third run scored of the inning for the Red Hawks.
Athens was boosted by a superb combined shutout performance, including three scoreless innings by starting pitcher Hunter Nelson. Hunter Henson came in and added another three outs capped off by a swinging strikeout in the top of the fourth, and Stark closed the game out in the fifth by inducing two ground outs and striking out a batter as well.
The home side ensured a shortened game with four runs in the bottom of the fourth. Frost did half of the damage on a single that went into the right-center gap to drive in Marc Sturm and Patrick Vincent.
The 2017 season hasn’t been quite as successful for Athens as, say, two years ago when Morris helped guide the team to a Class A regional title, but the competition and desire has helped drive this year’s group to make strides in the right direction.
“The parity in our league is fantastic. Our league champion will have seven wins [out of 12 possible games]. Every day we know we’re going to out and have a battle, but it’s been a fun season. The guys have really improved from the first day in tryouts, and they always say you want to peak at the right time. We’re peaking right now, so that’s fun.”
Stark, Delong and Brendan Small are the only seniors on a junior-heavy squad — there are just two sophomores on the 18-man roster — and Stark spoke for his teammates about wanting to make a good run in the playoffs after being knocked down last year by rivals Troy.
“We’re just trying to get back,” Stark said. “We lost last year in the district final to Troy, and that’s really motivating us. Losing to anyone would be tough, but losing to those guys definitely fueled the fire for us [this season].”
The Red Hawks will host districts and open up in a semifinal against Berkley on June 3 at 10 a.m.