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North Clay players celebrate after winning the Class 1A Sectional 6 Regional against St. Anthony on Monday, July 7, 2021, at Evergreen Hollow Park, in Effingham, Illinois. (Alex Wallner/Effingham Daily News)

Once the postseason rolls around, every team starts with a clean slate.

Records, rankings, and statistics get thrown out the window, and for North Clay, that is just what the Cardinals were hoping for in their rematch against St. Anthony on Monday.

Six weeks ago, the Cardinals and Bulldogs faced off at Evergreen Hollow Park, with St. Anthony winning 11-9.

Fast forward to Monday’s regional championship game, and the Cardinals were the ones to have the last laugh, defeating the Bulldogs on their home field, 6-1, to earn the program’s third-straight regional championship.

“They had a game plan from the word ‘Go,’ and they saw the ball, and they got their pitches,” North Clay head coach John Frech said. “We knew what we were waiting on. We had a game plan going in, and we stuck to it.”

With only two baserunners reaching through the first two innings, the third frame provided a spark for the fourth-seeded Cardinals.

Once the lineup card turned over, North Clay didn’t miss its opportunity to attack.

Collyn Ballard started the Cardinals’ rally after sliding head-first into third base with a triple, while Holden Clifton blasted a two-run home run — on the first pitch he saw — to make it a 2-0 game.

Then, after Clifton’s home run, Brady Ingram followed suit, hitting a solo shot on the very next offering from St. Anthony hurler Logan Antrim to push the North Clay lead to 3-0.

Yielding back-to-back home runs surprised Bulldogs’ head coach Tony Kreke, who said that Antrim was dealing with an injury heading into the start.

“He’s been dealing with a little bit of a back injury,” Kreke said. “He left a few pitches up, especially when he was up in the count, and that’s not like him, but hats off to North Clay. They came together, and they put together some nice at-bats. They barrelled some baseballs. We haven’t seen that all year, where teams are squaring Logan up, so it shocked us a little bit.”

Antrim pitched four innings, allowing six hits and four earned runs while fanning six batters and walking two.

Colton Fearday then relieved Antrim and tossed two innings of two-hit, two-run ball. He struck out one batter and walked five.

Like Antrim, Fearday also had the task of trying to halt the top two hitters in the Cardinals’ batting order, and like Antrim, found himself in a bind.

Ballard, the leadoff man, and Clifton, the two-hole hitter, finished a combined 6-for-7 with two runs, four RBIs, and two walks.

Knowing that they were going to see a lefty heading into the game, the Cardinals understood what they had to do and for Clifton, in particular, he made the most of his opportunity.

“As a right-handed batter, we don’t see a lot of lefties around here, so I was ready for it,” Clifton said. “I was trying to sit on the fastball and see off-speed, and I think I did that today.”

Clifton finished a perfect 3-for-3 with one run, four RBIs, and one base on balls to aide hurler Carson Burkett, who threw a gem.

Burkett gave up three hits and one earned run — a solo home run to Eli Moore — while striking out three and walking one over his seven innings of work. Additionally, he was also efficient at painting the zone, throwing 72 percent of his pitches for strikes.

“I knew coming into it that I needed to keep them off-balance,” Burkett said. “I knew they were a good hitting team, so I just tried to mix up my pitches inside and outside.”

Despite not striking out that many hitters, Burkett did manage to fan the final batter he saw and was greeted by his teammates after as the Cardinals upset the No. 1 seed in the regional and added more hardware to their trophy case as a result.

“It means a lot,” said Burkett on winning a regional championship. “I knew coming in that we were the underdog, and it just feels amazing.”

St. Anthony finishes the season at 17-6, while North Clay improves to 17-7. The Cardinals host Toledo (Cumberland) on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in the Class 1A Sectional Semifinals.

Contact EDN Sports Editor Alex Wallner at 217-347-7151 ext. 124 or alex.wallner@effinghamdailynews.com

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