May 16—SANFORD — The mood around the Kerr-Vance Academy dugout on Friday evening was dominated by frustration and confusion after Grace Christian scored six unanswered runs to take a 1-0 lead in the NCISAA 1A Championship Series.
KVA made sure to not repeat the same mistakes on Saturday, as they scored two consecutive victories against a previously undefeated Grace Christian squad to pick up their fourth consecutive NCISAA 1A Championship in baseball.
Head coach Mike Rigsbee had been an assistant with the baseball team during their three previous championship seasons but felt honored to continue the culture and tradition that had been started by Todd Wilkerson during the previous decade.
“This feels really wonderful,” Rigsbee said. “Those kids came to play [on Saturday]. After what happened [on Friday], I was hoping that would happen and they came through big time.”
KVA and Grace Christian each showcased their strengths in the outfield during the second game of the Championship Series, with neither side generating enough momentum to put up just one run on the board.
Senior R.J. Johnson broke the scoring drought at the bottom of the fourth with a solo home run. He then tallied another home run at the bottom of the fifth that helped KVA defeat Grace Christian by a score of 6-0.
Johnson, who will be playing college baseball at Appalachian State in 2022, has never endured a season on KVA’s varsity baseball team in which they were not a state champion, which he believes is a testament to the hard work everyone associated with the program puts in to make it efficient.
“It’s all kind of unbelievable,” Johnson said. “It hasn’t really set in yet but it’s just been great to go out with a win during these past four years. This is a dynasty for sure and I think they can keep winning. These boys are very hard workers and they’re going to put in the work over the offseason.”
With fellow senior Michael Holtzman nearing his pitch count at the end of the second game, Johnson replaced him on the mound for the third game as KVA looked to break the 1-1 tie with Grace Christian.
The final game initially started perfectly for KVA with Johnson only surrendering one run. His teammates complimented his efficiency at the plate with junior Shane Musselman and seniors Chance Murphy and Cole Merritt being among those to reach home plate, which gave KVA a sizable 8-1 advantage at the top of the second.
KVA only enjoyed that lead for less than two innings, as a lopsided sequence from KVA caused them to give up several runs, including a home run from Grace Christian sophomore Griffin Matthews, and cut the gap between the two programs down to just two runs.
Having just come off a heartbreaking loss the day before to Grace Christian, Johnson admitted that Grace Christian’s surge in the third inning was slightly nerve wracking but said that everyone stayed focused to fend off their opponent.
“I’m not really a pitcher but I did what I did,” Johnson said. “Our team stuck to the plan by taking things one pitch at a time. I gave up the home run but I kept a short memory and I knew my team had my back.”
Grace Christian never got closer to KVA throughout the rest of the third game, as nearly everyone on KVA’s roster contributed in adding runs to their advantage, all while Grace Christian struggled to figure out Johnson.
Musselman relieved Johnson on the mound at the bottom of the seventh and helped his team close out a stellar afternoon to claim their fourth consecutive NCISAA 1A Championship, resulting in a familiar yet exuberant celebration in the middle of the field.
KVA athletic director George Hoyle Jr. has grown accustomed to seeing the baseball team celebrate at the end of the spring sports season in his brief tenure and credited Rigsbee, his staff and everyone on the roster for keeping the program efficient despite having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is definitely an amazing accomplishment for the program,” Hoyle said. “Every group is different and we had a lot of different guys step up this year. To see them put it all together [on Saturday] is really special because [Grace Christian] is one of the best teams we’ve come up against in a championship game.”
Hoyle said that it should not be understated how difficult it is to win one state championship, let alone four in a row but he believes that the culture previously established by Wilkerson and maintained by Rigsbee will help KVA be in contention for many more titles during the current decade.
“We’ve had a lot of great players over the years,” Hoyle said. “A lot of these guys have started on all four of those teams but a lot of the young guys made an impact too. Often you see programs take a step down when they have new personnel come in but the future for us is bright with some of these new guys.”
Rigsbee admitted that this year’s run for the championship was difficult at times with the injuries his team had to deal with but he praised everyone for working through the adversity all year and battling back from a tough loss against Grace Christian on Friday to secure their fourth consecutive title in convincing fashion.
Senior leadership played a crucial role in KVA’s efficiency for Rigsbee with Johnson, Holtzman, Murphy, Merritt and Joel Lewis all making big plays while simultaneously getting the underclassmen more acclimated to the program’s culture.
Rigsbee said that not having the five seniors around in 2022 will be a big loss, yet he has no reason to believe that KVA will not at least be in contention for the fifth consecutive title with a talented class of rising seniors and juniors to go along with several junior varsity players expected to make the jump up to varsity next year.
“We’re going to definitely try,” Rigsbee said. “We have five seniors that are graduating but we’ve got a lot of young kids that played this year, so we’ll give it our best shot.”