Etowah takes opener, Southside regroups to force Game 3 in playoffs


Etowah’s Blane Payne slides safely into third base as Southside’s Hunter Clough receives the throw during the first game of the teams’ best-of-three series in the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs Friday. (Photo by Dave Hyatt | Gadsden Times)


SOUTHSIDE — This is Christmas in April for a high school baseball fan.

No. 5 Southside and No. 7 Etowah split Friday in the Class 5A AHSAA state playoffs, forcing a deciding Game 3 today for a pair of fierce rivals in Etowah County.

Etowah (28-10) won the opener 4-3 before Southside took a 7-1 win in the nightcap. Today’s game is scheduled for noon.

The doubleheader Friday featured a gutsy pitching performance from Etowah’s Colby Dunn, high resolve for Southside (27-11) in a pressure-packed Game 2 and, as with any good rivalry, flaring tempers.

Dunn earned the win in the opener, keeping Southside off balance into the sixth inning. When the Panthers tried to rally, he managed to get the outs when he needed them to secure the win. Dunn gave up three runs on five hits and struck out four.

But the win certainly didn’t come easy.

With Etowah leading 4-0 heading into the sixth, the Panthers scored a pair of runs to get back in the game. Then in the seventh, Dunn allowed a hit to Braxton Light and hit Kyle Steward to put runners on with no outs. After Conner Paulson bunted to advance the runners, Drew Mullinax got a hit up the middle. Light scored easily and it appeared Holt Keeling would score behind him, but Keeling was held up at third.

Meanwhile, Mullinax was thrown out trying to advance to second base, giving the Panthers two outs with Andrew Fuhrman stepping to the plate. After a failed bunt attempt and a short battle, Fuhrman flied out to shallow right-center field to end the game.

While the game ended in dramatic fashion, it was a defensive struggle through the first three innings.

Etowah broke through in the fourth inning against Southside starter Alex Pondick. Dunn reached first on a dropped third strike and Josh Bobo moved his pinch runner, GQ Hardwick, to second with a single. Blane Payne then lined a double down the right-field line to score Hardwick. Austin Keener’s RBI single then scored Bobo and Payne scored on an infield error to give the Blue Devils a 3-0 lead.

Etowah added another run in the top of the sixth. Paul Ruiz reached first on a two-out error. Tanner Putman then singled, but the ball was misplayed in the outfield and it allowed Ruiz to score all the way from first for a 4-0 advantage.

The errors proved costly and gave the Blue Devils the insurance run they needed to get the win.

Pondick suffered the loss. He gave up four runs on six hits and struck out seven in the complete-game effort.

Things got heated in Game 2 with Southside leading 4-1 in the sixth inning. It all started when Steward’s sacrifice fly scored Blake Devine. After Devine slid into home under Etowah catcher Braxton Wood, Wood appeared to toss a helmet at Devine. The two exchanged words with the umpire in between them as a few Etowah infielders headed toward the plate. Southside and Etowah coaches also went to the plate to keep the players separated.

After things calmed down, and on the very next pitch, Etowah pitcher Bobo hit Paulson with a pitch. That started another round of arguing between players, coaches and umpires, but it was all settled without any ejections.

The Panthers added two more runs in the seventh while relief pitchers Fuhrman and Brock Love combined to retire the final seven Etowah batters.

Southside opened the scoring in the nightcap on Clough’s RBI single to score Mullinax in the third.

Etowah had a chance to score in the fourth with a runner on second and Putman at the plate. Putman blasted a Jesse Fry offering to left field, where Devine turned to sprint toward the wall. Devine laid out in a dive, making the catch with his back to the infield and his head just a few feet from the wall to prevent a run.

The 1-0 lead remained until Dunn’s infield single scored Hardwick in the fifth.

Fry earned the win for Southside, allowing one run on four hits and striking out three. At the plate, Clough went 3 for 4 with two runs scored and an RBI, while Devine and Light both went 2 for 4. Pylant didn’t have a hit but got two RBI on a   sacrifice fly.

Dunn, Ruiz, Putman, Hardwick and Chris Steele each had a hit for Etowah.