The Magnolia Blue Eagles reserved a berth to the Region One baseball championship tonight at Mullett Field with a hard-fought 3-1 regional semifinal victory over the Wheeling Central Maroon Knights May 20 at the J.B. Chambers I-470 Complex in Wheeling.
Chandler Sapp followed a strikeout with a bloop double in the first inning, but was stranded at second, as the next two Eagle batters were also erased on strikes.
The Blue Eagle starter Zach Wilhoite gave up a single to the Central lead off batter. After a sacrifice bunt, Magnolia mishandled a toss at first and the Maroon Knights were in business with runners on the corners. However, Wilhoite settled down and got out of the inning without any damage.
Magnolia's Tanner Hanna reached on an error to open the second, but a long fly ball to center by Drew Keller, a strikeout, and a ground out ended the Eagles' second.
In the home half, Blue Eagle catcher Grant Cain made a nice catch behind the plate for the first out, while Wilhoite sat down the next two batters on strikes.
Neither team made any noise in the third, but Magnolia's Kyle Elliott worked the Knight pitcher for a lead off walk to open the fourth. Wilhoite drove one to the fence, but the Maroon centerfielder hauled it in. Elliott stole second and, after a called third strike, the Eagles' Chase Miller beat out an infield hit, moving Elliott to third. However, the Central hurler struck out the next batter on a big hook to end the Eagle threat.
To start the fourth, Central hit a seeing-eye single up the middle, just out of reach of Hanna and Elliott, and followed that with a line drive to Sapp at first for out number one. Wilhoite tried to pick-off the runner at first, who was leading off the base just a little much. But the ball sailed out of bounds, allowing the runner to move to second.
After a fly out to Keller in right field, the next batter hit a 0-2 single down the middle that scored the game's first run. Magnolia Head Coach Dave Cisar called for time to settle his team down, following which Wilhoite would end the inning with a strike out.
Following two strikeouts to open the fifth, Ryan Walton smacked a double and later scored on a Chandler Sapp single to knot the game at 1-1.
Wilhoite sat down the first Central batter in the fifth, and Hanna made a Willie Mays-type over-the-head catch to rob the Knights of a hit. The next batter placed a blooper to right field for a single, stole second, and made his way to third on a wild pitch. But, Hanna would scoop up a slow grounder at second and nip the runner at first to end another Central threat.
Elliott and Wilhoite would both get free passes to open the sixth and the Central head coach would call time to settle his pitcher down. Afterwards, Hanna beat out a bunt to load the bases with nobody out.
Miller struck out, then Elliott tried to score on a suicide squeeze, but he was called out on the tag at home. The Knights' catcher tossed it to third to end the Blue Eagle threat with a tag out of Brantley Hissom.
"That's the first time in about 43 years that I've had a double play on a squeeze play," noted Cisar after the game. "I haven't seen that one before. And I'm sitting there thinking, 'Man, I blew it.' But, I'm still thinking, 'I've got to be aggressive. We've got to steal second base. We've got to do this, we've got to do that.' You get a big, clutch hit that changes the ball game, but if you make a big clutch error, that still changes the complexion of the ball game."
Wilhoite sat the Knights down in order in the sixth, with the last two on strikes. In the Eagles' seventh, Cain walked and pitch hitter Derrick Blain took one on the shoulder to put the go ahead runner in scoring position. Walton was given a free pass to load the bases and Sapp would knock in Cain and Blain with a single to take the lead.
The Knights singled to open the home half, and Wilhoite struck out the next batter. The next batter singled, prompting Cisar to call in Elliott to finish the job, and he erased the first batter on strikes. Hanna would eat a slow roller at short, but Jake Starkey would make the routine play at second to end the game.
"We were kinda shaky at a position here and there and they made the routine play," said Cisar. "I've told the guys all year, if you make the routine play, you've got a chance to win. But, let's give Wheeling a lot of credit. They battled, fought, and scratched right to the very end, even with the tying run on first base. That was a real good high school baseball game."
Wilhoite earned the win from the mound. He struck out four and didn't walk a batter, while Elliott got the save. He struck out one.
Sapp had a pair of singles and a double, while knocking in all three Magnolia runs. Walton doubled, while Hanna and Miller singled.
The victory advances Magnolia to the Region I finale tonight at 5:30 p.m. at Mullett Field, where the Blue Eagles will face St. Marys, who beat Clay-Battelle in five innings, 12-2. Admission is $6 for adults and $5 for students. Only WVSSAC passes will be accepted.