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Text by Richard Taylor
Exhilaration, fist-bumps, hugs and shrieks-of-joy swept through the Ocracoke dugout and across the diamond on May Day, as the Dolphins celebrated a hard-fought 4-2 victory over rival the Hatteras Hurricanes in the Tideland Middle School Athletic Conference baseball tournament.
It was a total team effort for the players and a tense, nail-biting time for fans and family in the bleachers and along the fence Wednesday afternoon at Community Park.
The battery of pitcher Daymon Esham and catcher Chandler O’Neal held Hatteras scoreless through three innings. The Hurricanes did likewise to the Dolphins, as the teams fought through 5½-innings in another proverbial “Battle for the Paddle.”
Esham had a good day at the plate as well, with two singles and a spectacular slide-under-the-tag, third-base steal with Ocracoke behind 2-1 in the bottom of the fourth.
O’Neal followed with a crowd-pleasing deep-right triple, driving in Esham and Max Elicker. The Dolphins retook the lead, 3-2.
The Dolphin catcher then thundered down the third-base line to slide under the Hurricane catcher’s attempted tag. The partisan home crowd erupted wildly as home-plate umpire Shane Bryan thrust out his arms indicating “safe.” The Dolphins had added an insurance run.
With one out in the top of the sixth, first baseman Maren Donlon scooped up a Hatteras infield grounder, then ran over and stepped on first for the inning’s second out. Esham ended the game by striking out the Hatteras batter. The Dolphins had won the title.
Esham pitched a complete winning game, striking-out the side in the first and fourth innings, while fanning 11 visiting Hurricane hitters in the contest.
The Dolphins finished the season 10-2, losing only to Hatteras earlier in the season and a later exhibition game against the Bear Grass Charter Bears.
After the victory, Coach Bill Cole huddled his team for a final pep talk between first and second base.
“We put all the ingredients into a bowl today,” he told his jubilant players, barely able to hold his composure and excitement. “We mixed it up and poured it into a pan. We put it into the oven about three hours before the game, and the cake turned out all right.”
“The cake rose to the top today,” Cole exclaimed, with pride and emotion in his voice.
Later, he explained, “Our kids held their composure and put together some really good at bats while waiting for a pitch they could do something with. They were smart at not swinging at bad pitches. They put the ball in play and ran the bases really, really well.”
Concerning O’Neal’s triple, Cole said, “I’ve been working with him all season trying to get him to hit the ball to right field and he came through exactly like that today. It was one of the best, well-played middle school games I’ve been a part of. Everybody practiced hard all year and made everybody else get better.
“That’s what a good team does. Everybody pitches in. You saw the results out there today.”
Despite his pitching prowess and two wild pitches in the top of the sixth, Esham said it was hard to throw against the Hurricanes. “I feel pretty good right now,” he said smiling. “I thank the coaches.”
“I’m so proud of you,” Jen Esham told her grandson over fence. “I’ve got to have a hug.”
Wednesday’s win continues Ocracoke’s pattern of beating Hatteras in key games this school year. The middle-schoolers won the regular-season basketball title over the Hurricanes in March with many of the same players.
The Dolphin varsity baseball squad ended their season winless, falling to Columbia and Mattamuskeet in away games Monday and Tuesday.
Ocracoke Athletic Director Adam Burleson said baseball is quickly emerging as a major sport along with fall soccer and winter basketball.
“A lot of these kids who are so successful in middle school baseball now are going to be coming through the varsity program soon,” he said. “I’m excited about it.”
Recreational league games began Tuesday with the local Marlins winning and the Orioles losing in the Hatteras League at Buxton.
Both Ocracoke teams play in a home double-header against two visiting teams from Hatteras Island Saturday afternoon starting at 2 p.m.
Middle school baseball started here in 2012. Varsity ball began in 2015. As for the future of baseball on Ocracoke? Thirty kids have signed up for the island-only T-ball program this summer.