FAMILIAR PATH: As Cherryville makes its 15th appearance in baseball state final, we look back at the previous 14 trips

By Richard Walker

History will be on Cherryville’s side later this week when they begin a best-of-three N.C. 1A state championship series at Holly Springs’ Ting Stadium.

Henry Jones (white hat in middle) coached Cherryville to 6 state titles. Here he’s shown talking to future Gardner-Webb baseball coach Rusty Stroupe during a reunion of the school’s 1980 2A state championship team.

The Ironmen will look to win their 11th state title in 15 championship appearances when they face Perquimans County; Game One of the series is slated for 8 p.m. Friday, the second game at 2 p.m. on Saturday and a third game, if necessary, at 5 p.m. or 8 p.m. on Saturday.

Cherryville has won titles in its last four appearances in a state championship series.

Here’s a look at each of the school’s previous 14 appearances in a baseball championship game or series:

1916: Nicknamed “Cherries” – the Ironmen nickname wasn’t borne until a 1934 football championship team – the coach for whom the school’s gymnasium is named (Joe Nixon) guided the school’s second playoff team in school history to a state title game. In the third year of the N.C. High School Athletic Association baseball championship series, Cherryville beat Shelby, Maiden, Charlotte and Greensboro before losing 1-0 to Clayton in the title game played at UNC.

1917: A year after suffering a shutout loss in the state finals, pitcher Grier “Skipper” Friday made certain this time with a no-hit, 15-strikeout performance in a 1-0 state championship win over Raleigh at UNC’s Emerson Field. Six years later, Friday would become Gaston County’s first major leaguer as a pitcher for the Washington Senators (and teammate of eventual Baseball Hall of Famer Walter Johnson).

1960: Cherryville lost 10-3 to Kannapolis on a night in which 1,300 jammed the Cherryville stadium to Kannapolis in the championship game of the old Western N.C. High School Activities Association. Coach Ovie Heavner’s team, which won the Ironmen’s first conference title since 1939 to qualify for the playoffs, was led by pitcher Ronnie Hovis (9-1 record) and Steve Watts (.340) and had beaten Hickory 7-4 to advance to the WNCHSAA final.

1961: On a chilly May night at West Rowan High, Cherryville fell 2-1 to the host Falcons in the WNCHSAA championship game. The Ironmen had won at Hickory (5-3) to advance to the championship game and were lead again by Ronnie Hovis (9-2) and Steve Watts (.368).

1962: A crowd of 1,500 at the Cherryville Stadium was on hand as Heavner’s Ironmen ended their WNCHSAA frustration. Steve Watts improved to 10-3 on the season with a 5-4 win over East Rowan as Tommy Houser rapped out three hits. Cherryville had beaten Lenoir 5-4 as Mike Laney hit two home runs and Jerry Randall had the game-winning sacrifice fly in the first playoff game to advance to the WNCHSAA championship; The WNCHSAA folded in 1977 and its schools re-joined the NCHSAA.

1980: Cherryville rallied from behind to win four of its five playoff victories, including a 3-2, 10-inning win at Fuquay-Varina that wrapped up a 2-0 best-of-three series sweep for the N.C. 2A title. Ace pitchers Floyd Beal (10-1 record), John Warlick (7-2) and Kent Alexander (3-0) and a defense that made only 19 errors in 23 games led a team that had a collective .250 batting average. Cherryville won at East Wilkes (3-2), at East Lincoln (3-2) and at Ledford (3-2 in 11 innings) before winning 2-0 and 3-2 in 10 innings at Fuquay-Varina for the title.

1982: After losing 3-1 on a ninth-inning home run by South Granville pitching ace (and future California Angels minor leaguer) Donald Timberlake, Cherryville won 4-2 and 9-0 in a day-night doubleheader on the road to claim the N.C. 2A title. Ace pitcher Kent Alexander suffered the heartbreaking loss on a Friday night before firing a two-hit shutout in the 9-0 victory less than 24 hours later to clinch the state championship for Cherryville. The Ironmen beat Murphy (14-4), Foard (8-2) and West Davidson (10-3) before taking the best-of-three series over South Granville.

1992: A storm front that postponed action in a best-of-three series for three days proved helpful for Cherryville in its 2-1 best-of-three series win over Whiteville. Ironmen ace Steven Sanders, who fired a one-hitter in a 2-1 victory in the opener, was able to come back with a 3-hitter in a 5-1 victory in the series clincher. Whiteville had won 11-5 in the second game of the series. Cherryville had advanced by beating Starmount (6-0) then taking nail-biting wins over Piedmont (5-4), Forbush (3-2) and West Stanly (4-3 in 9 innings).

1993: Sanders again won the opener, then saved the clincher as Cherryville swept Greene Central by scores of 12-2 and 9-8 in a best-of-three series played at Fraley Field. In the opener, Sanders also helped himself at the plate with two hits and three RBIs. In the clincher, the visiting Rams scored four runs in the bottom of the seventh before Sanders got the final out to save the win for Alan Lovelace. The Ironmen entered the playoffs as Southern District 7 2A runner-up but won at Piedmont (5-1) and downed West Stanly (7-1) and Forbush (9-5) before winning at SD7 champion Bandys (17-4) in the Western N.C. 2A final.

Cherryville’s Ralph Roberts (far right) is congratulated after hitting a home run during the 1998 1A state title series.

1997: Arguably Cherryville’s most heartbreaking state finals loss in history as the Ironmen fell to Southwest Guilford when the Cowboys rallied to win the second and third games of a series played at Burlington Athletic Park to win the N.C. 2A title. After the Ironmen won 2-1 in the series opener, the Cowboys won 2-1 in Game 2 and 6-4 in Game 3 to hand Cherryville its first state title game loss since 1961. Ralph Roberts, Josh Cobb and Kent Bowen led a balanced Ironmen offense with Roberts (11-2 record) and Bryson Willis (7-2) leading the pitching staff.

1998: After starting the season with an 8-5 record, Cherryville won its last 13 games and were dominant in the playoffs as they outscored their opposition 57-10 in six postseason games. Roberts was again the standout with a .463 average, eight home runs and 9-1 pitching record. The Ironmen wouldn’t lose again after a 5-4 defeat on April 13 to South Point at Hunter Huss in the Gaston County Easter tournament. In the playoffs, coach Henry Jones’ team was at its best as it routed Andrews (10-0), Beaver Creek (14-0), Hendersonville (10-0), South Stanly (4-1) and Williamston (8-3 and 11-6) to win the N.C. 1A title.

2001: A late-season three-game losing streak appeared to spark the Ironmen, who rolled to six playoff wins by a combined 31-7 margin. A balanced pitching staff led by Chris McSwain, Wes Lovelace and Justin McLeymore led the Ironmen to the sixth state championship for coach Henry Jones. After finishing as runner-up to eventual N.C. 2A champion Shelby in the Southern Piedmont 1A/2A regular season and tournament, Cherryville routed East Wilkes (5-0), Hendersonville (5-0), Rosman (4-1), East Surry (4-0) and Williamston (6-4 and 7-2) to take the N.C. 1A title.

2008: The Ironmen’s ninth state title came in a year in which Cherryville again rolled through the playoffs, winning four of its eight postseason games by the 10-run mercy rule, including the 11-0, 6-inning clincher over Topsail at UNC-Greensboro. Current Ironmen assistant coach Seth Freeman, Cory Parks and Thomas Bess combined to shutout the Pirates by a combined 13-0 score in the best-of-three championship series. Cherryville had beaten Mount Airy (11-1 in 6 innings), Hayesville (8-6), Swain County (8-2), Polk County (5-4) and South Stokes (14-4 in 6 innings and 15-4 in 5 innings) to advance to the finals.

Noah Eaker

2016: Facing future major league MacKenzie Gore, Cherryville survived an opening game weather delay that knocked Gore out of action and took a dramatic 5-4 victory before winning more comfortably (7-4) in the close-out game of a two-game sweep at Zebulon’s Five County Stadium. Randall Long’s walkoff winner in the bottom of the seventh of the first game came after Whiteville had scored twice in the top of the inning to force a 4-all tie. In the second game, Noah Eaker earned series MVP efforts (1-0 with one save on the mound and 3-4 with a triple and three RBIs at the plate) highlighted by a two-run triple in the sixth that snapped a 4-all tie.