The glove flew into the air as Josh McAllister’s helmet slammed into the ground, encapsulating the simultaneous joy and disappointment on Wednesday night, when the Lambert baseball team lost two games to North Paulding, 8-5 and 6-0, to see its season end in the second round of the state playoffs.
But as McAllister held back tears, he couldn’t ignore the improbability of the path that had brought the Longhorns to the point where it all ended.
“A lot of people didn’t think we could do what we did,” McAllister said. “And I didn’t think we could do it, either, but we did it, somehow.”
The Longhorns returned just three starters from 2016 and replaced the entire starting rotation. Then they sputtered to a 5-7 mark in non-region play to start the season.
“We were struggling,” Lambert head coach Rich Howard said. “We were struggling to find ourselves and we were struggling to just play good baseball.”
Somehow it came together for a region title, though. The Longhorns didn’t have an order filled with mashers or a group of hard throwers on the mound, but they played solid team defense, found a reliable closer in first-year varsity player Payton MacPherson and were blessed with exceptional timing many times throughout the year: a bases-loaded triple to push past Lakeside-Dekalb in the first round of the playoffs, an RBI double to force extra innings in a region-opening win at Forsyth Central, and numerous others.
Not on Wednesday, though. North Paulding took the first lead of the first game, scoring on an RBI single of Lambert starter Zach Keenan in the third inning. The Wolfpack’s attack intensified later, as they notched two runs in the fifth, three in the sixth and three more in the seventh, with three Lambert errors helping them along the way.
Meanwhile, the Longhorns’ hitters were giving their arms little rest, freely swinging early in counts against North Paulding starter Dalton Rhadans, whose pitch count didn’t break 60 until the sixth inning.
“We should have been more calm,” McAllister said. “He was a fastball pitcher – we shouldn’t have swung at any of his offspeed. He was throwing up all game, and we consistently swung at it, and that’s on us.”
Lambert (20-15) showed some spark, with a run in the fifth and four in the seventh, but the lead stayed out of reach. Offense was much scarcer for the Longhorns in the second game, as North Paulding starter Jakob Brown cruised through 5 2/3 innings with just two hits allowed and wound up holding Lambert to four overall.
The Wolfpack kept chopping, limiting swings and misses and putting balls in the right spots at the right moments. Lambert was within three runs heading into the sixth inning, but a three-spot off MacPherson in that frame dimmed the Longhorns' comeback hopes.
“All credit goes to North Paulding,” Howard said. “They play extremely well together and they earned everything that they got today. Yeah, we made some errors, but we made errors because of things that they were doing.”
Lambert could find solace by looking towards the fence in left-center field, where the decals commemorating the Longhorns’ region titles are placed. The space was empty on Wednesday, but it will be filled by next season, marking a year that went where few expected it to go.
“It wasn’t looking like we were going to put much on the wall this year,” Howard said.