Sterlington 6, Pope John Paul II 5 (9 innings)

Jacob Barr's clutch hit is a classic example of why coaches exhort their players to continue striving for excellence during tough times.

Barr's one-out single in the bottom of the ninth drove in Zac Corrent with the winning run as Sterlington squeaked past Pope John Paul II in a Class 2A first-round playoff game Friday evening at Panther Park.

Sterlington (23-7), the No. 4 seed, will also be home for the second round, facing No. 13 Oakdale (20-8) on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. Like the Panthers, Oakdale survived a first-round scare at home, edging Dunham 6-5.

In a game that produced more than a few clutch performers, Barr was the unlikeliest hero of all. To put it nicely, the freshman center fielder was having a bad day at the plate prior to delivering the decisive hit in the ninth inning. Each of his first three at bats resulted in inning-ending strikeouts, stranding seven base runners.

With one down in the ninth, Corrent's triple presented Barr with yet another opportunity.

“What a big hit by Zac Corrent with two strikes and using his legs to get to third base with one out,” Sterlington coach Mark Sims said.

Understandably, Barr's confidence was shaken by the time he stepped to the plate in the ninth inning.

“I just wanted to drive in the run and help us move to the next round,” Barr said when asked of his thoughts as he made his way into the batter's box. “To be honest, I was pretty down on myself, but I was just going to stay in there and battle. I wasn't going to give up.”

Bluffing on the squeeze, Barr took two pitches for balls, before shooting the next offering down the left field line for the game-winner.

“At first, I thought it was going foul, then I heard everybody start screaming,” Barr said. “I really don't remember what happened after that; I had so much going through my head.”

For the record, first base coach Bucky Chandler was the first to congratulate Barr with a double high-five. Seconds later, he was lifted off the ground by seniors Kyle Vandergracht and Elliot Courson.

“I've never had a walkoff hit before,” Barr said. “This was a good time for it.”

Though the spotlight rightfully shined on Barr, there are many others who shouldn't be overlooked.

First of all, the Panthers needed a run in the seventh and two in the eighth to extend the game.

“For Jacob Barr to get to that point and Zac Corrent to get to that point, a lot of things happened in the seventh and eighth innings,” Sterlington coach Mark Sims said. “Step 1 was Spencer Davis coming in and throwing a zero (in the ninth inning). Everybody fought, fought and fought to keep tying the game.”

Not all of the game's stars were on the Sterlington side. Senior righthander Blayne Haro went the distance on the mound for the Cougars, rolling up an astronomical pitch count, while ringing up 16 punchouts, walking nine and holding the Panthers to five hits. Also contributing with the bat, Haro went 2-for-4 with a two-run homer, a double and two runs scored.

“You have to tip your hat to (Haro),” Sims said. “That kid threw 170-something pitches. He battled, battled and battled. I feel bad for him, but it was a great win for us.”

Austin Haman single-handedly accounted for the first two runs of the game, leading off the bottom of the first and the fifth with solo home runs.

“Austin had a great day at the plate and pitched well, too,” Sims said.

Sterlington starter Ross Lambert, meanwhile, was cruising, allowing only two base runners through the first five innings. The junior lefthander had retired 10 in a row, before Beaux Riviere, the Jaguars' leadoff batter, dropped a one-out single into shallow left-center in the sixth.

Haro then sent a two-run laser over the left field wall. Suddenly, the Jaguars had tied the game at 2-2.

Steven Schmitt followed with a perfectly-placed bunt single to the right side. Next up, cleanup batter

Charlie Loupe bounced an RBI double off the left-center wall, chasing Schmitt home with the go-ahead run.

Summoned from left field, Haman recorded back-to-back punchouts, keeping the Panthers within one.

“I think they had their timing down on Ross the third time through the order,” Sims said. “Ross didn't walk anybody and had one of his better outings, overall. Austin throws harder and his pitches have a different tail on them. I hated bringing in a righty (Haman) to face a lefty (PJP's Justin Gandy), but at that moment, I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Haro worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the sixth and Haman pitched around a two-out error in the top of the seventh, leaving the Panthers down to their final three outs.

Sterlington loaded the bases with nobody out without swinging the bat as Haman, Austin Mills and

Devon Murphy walked. Moments later, Haman, who was battling leg cramps, hobbled home on a wild pitch. Not only had the Panthers tied the game, they had runners at second and third with nobody out.

Haro would escape, though. Following a punchout, Corrent lofted a fly ball to shallow left field.

Making the catch, Schmitt fired a one-hopper to catcher Taylor Thies, who tagged a sliding Mills to complete an inning-ending double play.

On to extra innings, Haro started the eighth with a double into the left field corner. Schmitt then coaxed a walk, bringing on a pitching change.

Taking over for Haman on the mound, Davis cajoled Loupe to hit into a force play, leaving runners at the corners. Loupe then moved to second uncontested.

Next up, Gandy slashed an opposite-field double to left-center, enabling the Jaguars to reclaim the lead, 5-3.

Davis (9-1), a freshman righthander, would recover to retire the final five batters.

Sterlington matched PJP's deuce in the home half of the eighth without the benefit of a hit.

Four straight batters reached with one away. Dalton Dopson was safe on an error, pinch hitter Elliot Courson walked, Auston Smith made his way aboard on an E and Haman drew a free pass to force in a run. Trent Raffray, reinserted into the lineup for Courson, then beat the throw to the plate on Austin Mills' game-tying sac fly.

Haman, who slugged his fourth and fifth home runs to take over the team lead, finished the contest 2-for-3 with three RBI, three runs scored and a pair of walks. Corrent tripled and Kyle Vandergracht and Barr singled for the Panthers.

PJP (9-17), the No. 29 seed, out-hit the Panthers 8-5. Haro homered and doubled, Gandy doubled and singled, Loupe doubled and Beaux Riviere, Charlie Loupe and Clayton Riviere singled.