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St. James's Nick Smith throws to Caleb Bondi at first base in the game with Ashley Ridge on Monday. St. James won the district championship and will play Summerville on Thursday opening the Lower State tournament. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

It took a little longer than St. James fans may have hoped, but Monday night worked about as well as possible for the Sharks baseball team.

And then it ended up even better than that.

Coach Robbie Centracchio’s team won the Class 5A, District VI championship with a 6-1 win over Ashley Ridge in a winner-take-all game two Monday night. The Swamp Foxes forced that second game with 2-0 win earlier in the evening, but the nightcap was all St. James.

And then, thanks to a seeding upset in another district, the Sharks discovered they will have homefield advantage throughout the lower state tournament as long as they continue to win.

“Since the start of the season, I knew that we’d have a great shot at making a run at states,” St. James sophomore Ethan Salak said. “Now that we have home-field advantage for [the lower state tournament], that’s a plus.”

The Sharks are the lone No. 1 seed to qualify for the four-team lower state field. Joining them are No. 3 seeds River Bluff and Dutch Fork, and No. 2 Summerville, Thursday’s opponent to open the second tier of the postseason.

The fact that St. James is still alive, well, that’s just getting to be old hat.

This was the Sharks’ seventh district championship in school history. Although the school opened in 2003, all seven of those district titles have comes since the start of the 2009 season.

St. James advanced with another great pitching performance from Salak, and then a couple timely hits from him and several of his teammates. The Coastal Carolina verbal commitment gave up just three hits in game two. Ashley Ridge’s lone score came in the third inning when Salak allowed a single, plunked a batter and then forced back-the-back groundouts, the second of which brought Swamp Fox leadoff batter Chase Dupree in from third base.

After that, Salak hit another level.

He chased the only other hit he allowed with a double-play ball. And in total, Salak got 12 groundouts to go along with six strikeouts. Just for good measure, the righty was also 4-for-4 in game two with two doubles and two RBI.

That type of performance is why Centracchio rolled the dice some and held him for game two. If St. James had somehow managed to win the first game, he would have been available to start the lower state opener. If not, he could be a security blanket of sorts, knowing that Ashley Ridge had only one pitcher the likes of Chris Watkins, the game one star.

“I talked to the team about it Saturday,” Centracchio said of the decision to hold off on Salak. “Everybody has a big pitcher who they are better behind. They were all down with it. I just wanted them to know why we were doing it. That’s the thing — this is a team. I want them to know what’s going on. I’m glad to see it worked out. It doesn’t always work out.”

This time, it did. 

Salak threw more than 90 pitches Monday, so that means he won’t be available either Thursday or Saturday (for either the team’s second-round game or loser’s bracket contest). Regardless, St. James isn’t going in with a defeatist attitude.

For starters, by this point of the season, the remaining teams have all shown the ability to get strong pitching performances from those who aren’t their ace. The team’s offense is — when it wasn’t facing Watkins, that is — also producing. All but one batter reached based safely in game two.

Throughout the four district tournament games, Nikko Andre, Nick Smith and Salak led an offense that piled up 41 total hits. 

It’s a big reason why St. James’ first season in the state’s largest class will last at least two more games, if not longer, when so few people thought they’d still be in play for a state championship.

“People can say what they want to say,” Salak said. “But what it boils down to is what we can show on the field. We’ve pretty much proven them all wrong. People have opinions, but it’s our job to prove them wrong.”

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

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