Tournaments | Story | 3/8/2021

NC's Combine on top at Academies

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Combine Academy (Perfect Game)

HOOVER, Ala. – Lead-off doubles rock. Lead-off doubles rule. Lead-off doubles are a great way for a team to double its pleasure and double its fun, especially when they happen in the earliest innings of a Perfect Game tournament championship game.

The players and coaches from North Carolina-based Combine Academy had to just about be doubled-over with glee after J.P. Cunningham led off the bottom the first with a double and was soon chased home, and Milan Prokop repeated the feat in the next frame to ignite a two-run second.

It was a great start to a great afternoon for Combine in the championship game at the prestigious, invitation-only Perfect Game High School Showdown-Academies tournament. The championship game was played Sunday at the Hoover Met Complex Stadium, which sits in a sort of pine tree rimmed bowl a little less than 20 miles south of downtown Birmingham.

And that fast start – three runs in the first two innings – launched Combine toward a decisive, 9-1, six-inning, run-rule walk-off victory over Georgia-based NLA (Next Level Academy) in the title tilt and placed the international boarding school and sports performance center’s name permanently in PG’s record books.

“I told the guys before the game that we’ve got to jump on them early,” Combine Academy Head Coach Jeff Birkofer told PG postgame. “We’ve been the visiting team quite a bit in this tournament and we put an emphasis on scoring first. Today in the championship game we were the home team and we were able to put up a zero in the top of the first.”

Combine (6-1-0) totaled eight hits in the victory and was also given a huge assist from five NLA errors that kept innings alive and contributed to runs being scored. As an example, after Cunningham led-off the first with his double, he was able to score when Chris King hit a sharp ground ball to the left side which was mishandled by both the NLA shortstop and its center fielder; King wound up on third but was stranded there.

The pair of runs Combine plated in the second were a little more conventional in that following Prokop’s two-bagger, Isaiah Mack laced a ground ball single into left field to put runners on first and third, and Prokop scored on a Tanner Martin fielder’s choice ground ball when the throw went home. Aidan Paradine then pushed Mack home on yet another ground ball single, this one to center.

Things could have ended much worse for NLA. The bases were still loaded with nobody out at this time when Next Level (5-2-0) made a pitching change, bringing in Brody Hill, a somewhat smallish (5-10, 130), side-winding left-hander to put out the fire. And Hill couldn't have been more effective, inducing a fly ball out and then fanning the next two batters he faced, allowing NLA to dodge a major bullet; it's good fortune wouldn't last.

Combine scored four more runs in the bottom of the fourth to take a 7-0 lead thanks to Mack reaching on a lead-off error and consecutive two-out singles from Jaden Knight, Cunningham and Aiden Evans, which scored Mack and left the bases loaded. David Zamora then stepped in and launched a high fly ball to center field which was dropped, and the bases cleared.

The game was won by the run-rule in the sixth when Cunningham reached on a two-out error, promptly stole both second and third and scored on an RBI single from Evans to make it 8-1; King was then the beneficiary of yet another NLA error which scored Evans with the winning run.

NLA, which had only one hit in the ballgame, scored its only run in the top of the fifth without the benefit of a hit. Three of its batters were hit by pitches to load the bases and the first one, JonPaul Wheat, scored on a passed ball.

Cunningham, a junior infielder and a Clemson commit, finished with a single, a double and three runs scored; Evans, a junior outfielder and a UNC Wilmington commit, contributed a pair of singles, two RBI and two runs.

Sophomore right-hander Patric Menk got the start and worked four pretty effective innings until he started plunking hitters in the fifth; he allowed just the one run on one hit while striking out eight and walking  three.

Combine Academy really had to battle to reach the championship game and wound up playing five games in about a 30-hour time span. It lost to Puerto Rico-based IBAHS during pool-play on Friday and had to win its final pool-play game and two playoff games on Saturday just to make it to Sunday’s semifinal round.

Once there, it had to face IBAHS again but turned the tables in an 8-0 victory, a game in which junior right-hander Austin Williamson, an Alabama commit threw a five-inning, four-hit shutout with nine Ks and just one walk. Combine needed just 11 innings to win its two Sunday games, outscoring its opponents by a combined 17-1.

“I definitely think there was some momentum,” Birkofer said when asked about his team’s state of mind coming into the championship game, “but I think the momentum really started (Saturday) – we knew we had to win three games to make it to today.

“We kind of just carried it over from last night into this morning, and we scored in the top of the first in the (semifinal) which was big for our pitching to go out there and throw up a zero, as well. I’ve tried to put an emphasis on a fast start all year and they were able to do it the last couple of days.”

NLA also played five games in about 30 hours, with three on Saturday and the semifinal and championship contests on Sunday. It pounded out 12 hits in a 14-2 quarterfinal-round win over TSD Elite on Saturday, with Michael Young going 3-for-4 with two RBI and three runs scored and James Walker Morgan matching that 3-for-4 effort with a double, two RBI and a run.

Speaking of the junior catcher Young, he stroked seven singles in 18 at-bats (.389), drove in seven runs and scored five others, and was named the event’s MV Player. Combine senior right-hander Caleb Ketchie, a UNC Charlotte signee, was named the MV Pitcher after throwing a six-inning, five-hit, 10-strikeout shutout at Team Elite in Saturday night’s quarterfinals.

Combine Academy will return to North Carolina to continue its spring season where it will play other academies from around the area and a couple of high schools; the staff is also trying to schedule some games against local junior colleges.

It will also be traveling to tournaments the next three or four weekends in an effort to challenge their players against the best competition they can find. The PG High School Showdown-Academies event was a great place to set things in motion, and the fact that Combine was able to win the championship made the experience all the more enjoyable.

“I had a blast; I thought it was awesome,” Birkofer said. “Perfect Game always runs great tournaments, and with 38 teams coming down here, you’ve got to make it out of pool-play and we were fortunate to make it in.

“You’ve got to win a lot of games back-to-back-to-back just to keep playing and it’s tough on the kids, but I think our guys did a really good job of staying with it and being ready to go every game.”

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