PENDLETON — As dirt stains go, the one extending from the right knee of Nick Burke’s white baseball pants to just above the ankle qualified as a grand slam.

Convincingly dark and nearly as wide as it was long, it served as a postgame reminder of how Burke punctuated the Arabians’ 4-3 victory over Highland at the Class 4A Pendleton Heights baseball Sectional.

With a berth in Friday’s championship game hanging in the balance and the Scots threatening in the top of the seventh inning, Burke’s textbook fielding of a hard ground ball off the bat of No. 3 hitter Chase Freeman started a double play that ended the ballgame.

A fine line can separate euphoria from heartache, and for a few tense seconds, both ballclubs straddled it.

“The thing about Nick is that I feel so good with him in pressure situations,” said Pendleton Heights coach Bill Stoudt, whose squad faces New Castle, an 8-4 winner against Anderson in Wednesday’s second semifinal, in Friday’s title contest. “Even though he booted one earlier in the game, he comes back.”

Stoudt is referring to Burke’s error in the fifth, which enabled Spenser Benge to score Highland’s first run of the game and in the process trim the Pendleton Heights lead to 2-1.

Erasing the mental burden of that sequence wasn’t easy, admits Burke, but it had to be done.

“I was just trying to let it go,” he said. “It’s sectional, and if you can’t take it to the field because the ball is eventually going to come back to you. At the time I felt bad for my pitcher (Allen Thompson). I felt I let him down.”

A junior righthander, the 5-9 Thompson pitched a complete game, allowing seven hits and walking six. His counterpart, 5-11 Scots senior Chad Blackmon, permitted 10 Arabian hits while going the distance.

The senior trio of centerfielder Sean Collins, first baseman Nate Clem and leftfielder Jay Hubble led Pendleton Heights (21-8) with two singles apiece.

For Highland (13-14) Wednesday’s semifinal contest was about missed opportunities what with Thompson picking off two Scots baserunners in the third inning alone.

The handwriting should have been on the wall earlier in the inning after Pendleton Heights third baseman Tyler Holloway channeled his inner Brooks Robinson with a diving stop and throw to first that robbed Highland catcher Joey Hart of a base hit.

Hart would get his moment, however, with a no-out double to the fence in left-center that scored Jake Millikan to make it a 4-2 ballgame in the seventh. Hart would later touch home plate on a sacrifice fly to left courtesy of leadoff hitter Brad Kindred.

Taylor Hopkins’ bloop to shallow right field put runners on the corners, but then Burke’s defensive gem saved the day for Pendleton Heights.

“It was a great game, exciting, the way a sectional game should be,” said Stoudt. “Highland battled, and we battled. We were very fortunate to come out on top.”

Wednesday’s loss meant six seniors played their final baseball game in a Highland uniform, a fact not lost on Scots coach Matt Bair.

“A lot of hard work,” said Bair, when asked what words best describe his seniors. “I don’t know if there is a word for not quitting. It’s just a great group of kids. When they walk away you hope they take something from here that’s meaningful.”

In Wednesday’s second semifinal, New Castle produced two runs in the bottom of the first inning and four more in the second to immediately put pressure on the Indians.

By game’s end, the Trojans had stolen seven bases, and Anderson batters had struck out on eight different occasions.

“We didn’t play well. Give them credit, they made plays when they had to,” said AHS coach Terry Turner, whose club closes the book on an 18-10 season. “We had too many strikeouts and couldn’t get anything going.”

Zach Gooding went 2-for-4 at the plate for the Indians, while junior pitcher Nolan Earley took the loss by allowing eight hits over six innings of work.



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