CARY, N.C.—Sometimes in the biggest moments and on the largest stages, stars are born and in the process, history is made.
That has certainly been the case for Green Hope (Cary, N.C.) High and sophomore Liam Norris, who is playing in front of a hometown crowd at this week’s NHSI.
With a win on the mound and two RBIs at the plate in Green Hope’s first two games of the tournament, Norris provided an even better encore performance in Friday’s NHSI semifinals.
Norris hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th inning against John Curtis Christian (River Ridge, La.), breaking a scoreless tie and sending Green Hope to Saturday’s NHSI championship game with a 1-0, extra-inning victory.
Norris’ game-winning hit kept Green Hope’s record-setting tournament alive. After being the first North Carolina-based team to advance to the NHSI semifinals on Thursday, the Falcons have now cemented their place in history as the first in-state team to reach the championship round of the NHSI, now in its seventh year of existence.
The Green Hope players and coaches knew it would be tough work against a strong John Curtis pitching staff that had allowed just one run through its first two tournament games. And just like the Patriots’ first two games, this matchup was yet another pitcher’s duel, with John Curtis starter Dax Ford dealing through seven innings, allowing just three hits and striking out eight.
With Ford was pitching well, it looked like John Curtis would be the first team to score in the fourth, when it loaded the bases thanks to three walks. With his team facing its first jam of the day, Green Hope head coach Michael Miragliuolo called for a change and inserted reliever Joey Hegeman, who picked up yesterday’s win in relief.
Hegeman quickly fell behind to the first hitter 3-0, but kept his composure and threw two strikes. Then, with a 3-2 count, Hegeman threw a looping curveball that fooled the John Curtis hitter and retired the side, allowing Green Hope to escape the inning unscathed.
“That was huge and especially in that spot there,” Miragliuolo said. “I know he was on fumes, but in a tournament like this we’re asking people to do stuff they may not do on a normal basis. He stepped up.”
Ford was eventually removed after the seventh inning because of a high pitch count, but John Curtis reliever Logan Stevens picked up right where he left off and neither team threatened to score until the top of the 10th.
That’s when John Curtis left fielder Hunter Bufkin got things rolling with a lead-off single and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. With one out and a runner in scoring position, and John Curtis having the heart of its lineup due up, things were not looking promising for the hometown Falcons.
But Hegeman had been in this situation before and kept his cool yet again. He was able to get shortstop Brandon Davis to fly out to right field and then forced right fielder Will Ripoll to pop out to end the inning.
After Green Hope failed to make any noise in the bottom half of the inning, John Curtis got yet another runner in scoring position in the top of the 11th, only to see Hegeman leave another one of the Patriots’ baserunner stranded.
And so, with fans from seemingly all participating teams now surrounding the field to watch the suspense unfold, Green Hope first baseman Connor Knapp stepped to the plate and laced a single into center field to start the bottom of the 11th. Falcons catcher P.J. Heintz then followed with a successful bunt down the first base line, advancing Knapp to second base and setting the stage for Norris’ heroics.
Despite his strong performances in the first two games of the tournament, Norris was hitless in his first four at-bats on Friday, striking out three times before stepping to the plate in the 11th. The North Carolina commit knew he needed to change his approach with the game-winning run now in scoring position.
“I decided I should put something in play and see what happens—try and hit it right back up the middle,” Norris said.
Norris did just that, scorching a ball into center field and recording his third—and most important—RBI of the tournament. As soon as bat hit ball, Knapp was sprinting, rounding third just as the John Curtis center fielder was ready to throw home. Knapp was too quick, however, and slid into home plate just before the tag, quickly getting mobbed by his teammates and coaches.
Just like that, Norris—with the help of Hegeman, Knapp and the rest of his teammates—continued their historic run. And now they find themselves just one win away from an even bigger piece of history—keeping the NHSI championship trophy inside North Carolina state lines for the first time and taking it just a few minutes down the road to Green Hope High.