Coaching in his eighth state tournament in the last 12 years without a title to speak of, Charleston Catholic coach Bill Mehle had seen his club lose in nearly every way imaginable in its quest for an elusive state title.
So when his Irish took a 9-2 lead on Magnolia in the top of the sixth inning of Saturday's West Virginia Class A state championship game at Appalachian Power Park, Mehle, with that history as a backdrop, was anything but comfortable.
It turns out, he had plenty of reason as the the Blue Eagles staged a furious rally, pushing the tying run to second and the potential winning run to first, before falling, 9-8, in coach Dave Cisar's 1,200th career game in his 40th season in New Martinsville.
2013 Class-A State Baseball Runner-Up Magnolia Blue Eagles (Photo by Chuck Clegg)
"Even when we had that seven-run cushion, we knew that was not going to be enough," Mehle said. "If you noticed when we had seven runs, we still tried to bunt our way across to get another run in. When you get to the postseason, you don't take anything for granted."
Magnolia (31-5) inched a little closer with three in the sixth as Grant Cain and pinch hitter Yale Wetzel hit back-to-back, one-out singles in front of a loud RBI double to left by Drew Keller. Ryan Walton followed that up with a two-run double before Charleston Catholic pitcher Kiefer Hovorka was able to wiggle off the hook.
"We were telling our kids stay close," said Cisar, whose club committed three errors and issued nine walks to help the Irish build that lead. "Just cut off one leg at a time. There's not many seven, eight-run innings, but there's one runs, two runs - keep on pecking away."
Trailing 9-5 entering the bottom of the seventh and already a bit confident because they'd rallied to win in the seventh a day earlier, the Blue Eagles were set to face whatever was left of Mehle's pitching staff as Hovorka, the staff ace, pitched an inning of the semifinal and had run out of innings allowed by the WVSSAC in a two-day tournament window prior to the seventh.
Rocco Wilcox gave it the first try, but he walked the first two hitters he faced before being pulled in favor of Conner Golden, who walked his first hitter, Chase Miller, to load the bases with no one out. Suddenly Magnolia, seemingly down and out 25 minutes earlier, had the tying run at the plate. After a strikeout, Wetzel hit into an RBI fielder's choice before Keller lifted a high fly ball to left that would have ended things on any other day.
It fell harmlessly to the ground after it was lost in the sun, allowing two runs to score, and the Blue Eagles had the tying run at second base.
"When that fly ball got caught in the sun, I'm thinking, 'Holy Cow, something special is going to happen here,' Cisar said.
Mehle ordered an intentional walk of Walton, bringing up Chandler Sapp, he of a 66-hit season, with a chance to bring the Eagles all the way back.
Sapp, who was 0-for-4 at that point, went with a pitch and lined it to shortstop where it was caught, setting off a lifelong celebration for everyone involved in Charleston Catholic baseball.
This Irish had been 1-7 in Final Four games prior to Saturday, having lost the lone championship game they'd ever played (14-7 to Wheeling Central in 2011).
Baseball is the only sport that's played without a clock and Cisar managed this game with that in mind.
He wore out a patch to the mound with his multiple pitching changes, shuffling in and out six pitchers (though two were duplicates), hoping to find some lightning in a bottle somewhere.
"I tried to drag it out, just hoping maybe somebody could find it on the mound," Cisar said. No one really did.
Sapp started and worked 2.2 innings before giving way to Tanner Hanna, who worked an inning ahead of ace Kyle Elliott, who was available for only 2.1 innings because he'd pitched 4.2 in the semifinal.
Elliott got the final out of the fourth inning and Hanna came back to start the fifth. Elliott replaced him for the final out of that frame and Zach Wilhoite worked the sixth. They combined to yield nine runs, nine walks, and seven hits.
"Every game has a winner and a loser," Cisar said. "Sometimes you win great, sometimes you lose tough. We won great (Friday), we lost tough (Saturday). Sometimes they say second place is no place. But I'll tell you what, what a great game, lot of walks, lot of errors, lot of tension, lot of anxiety - we were this close."
Of Charleston Catholic's nine runs, four were driven in and the rest were manufactured via errors, walks, and wild pitches.
"You need a little bit of luck and you need some really competent and confident baseball players," Mehle said of winning his first title in his 17 years as a head coach.