ROSEMOUNT — They Clay Panthers only scored in one inning of their sectional semifinal game against Western. But It was all they needed.
On the back of an eight-run second inning, the Panthers cruised to an 8-4 victory over the Indians Monday evening.
Using smart base running and consistent hitting, Clay batters were able to go base-to-base and drive runners home. Eight straight Panthers reached base to begin the second inning, and all would eventually score. Grant Hempill, Adam Cooper, Wyatt Large and Zack Phillips each had hits to score a run in the inning.
“The majority of the time, when we were able to make contact, we would either put it in the hole, or put it to where the defense had to make a play,” said Panther coach Roger Compton.
After the big second inning, the Panthers placed their trust in pitcher Conner Phipps. He didn’t disappoint. Phipps pitched a complete game, striking out nine batters and walking only two.
It wasn’t smooth sailing the entire way for Phipps. With men on second and third in the top of the fifth inning, a single hit could have turned Clay’s cushy five-run lead into a brand-new ball game. However, on a 2-2 count, Phipps threw high heat to strike out hot-hitting Dustin Branscomb and get the Panthers out of the inning. Phipps said that the extra power behind the pitch was all adrenaline.
“I knew it would be a huge momentum shift,” Phipps said.
With their season on the line, Western was able to push a run across in the seventh to make the score 8-4. With runners on first and second and Phipps well over the 100-pitch mark, he needed to dig deep to get the final out.
“…Knowing that we have seniors on our team, I didn’t want this to be their last game,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to win the sectional.”
Phipps forced the next batter to pop out to second, giving Clay a spot in the Sectional Finals. Despite the loss, Western head coach Sam Henderson was proud of his team’s effort.
“The boys never quit,” he said. “They played all the way through. If it wasn’t for that one inning…that was it.”
It was Western that got on the board first. Branscomb’s single in the bottom of the first gave the Indians an early 2-0 lead.
The Indians were able to keep Clay in check after their big second inning, thanks to solid relief pitching from Dylan Lee. He struck out four batters in his five innings of work.
“He’s pitched good under pressure for us all year,” Henderson said.
The Indians also threatened in the fourth inning, when they had a runner at second base. But Clay freshman third baseman Brady Riffe made a diving stop and throw to steal a run, and followed it up with another nice throw to end the inning.
“All you have to do is tell [Riffe] what you expect out of him, and you’ll get the effort from him,” Compton said.
It’ll be a quick turnaround for the Panthers. They’ll travel to Paint Valley on Tuesday for a shot at a sectional title.
“We’re really one step away from going farther than any team that Clay’s gone in a long, long time,” Compton said. I am so thrilled to be a part of this.”
For Western, their season ends with the loss. Seniors Clayton Boyd, Hunter East and Dustin Humphrey all played in their final game with the Indians on Monday.
“I had fun with them all year,” Henderson said. “I wish I had them for another year, to be honest.”
Western 200 100 1 — 4 8 1
Clay 080 000 0 — 8 10 1
Western — Gray 2-4 (2B, 2 R), Humphrey 0-3 (R), East 1-4 (2B), Henderson 1-3, Branscomb 2-4 (R, 2 RBI), Lee 1-3 (2B, RBI), Boyd 1-3
Clay — Phipps 0-3 (R), Riffe 0-2 (R), Cooper 3-3 (R, RBI), Large 1-4 (R, RBI), Hadsell 0-2 (R), Phillips 3-4 (R, RBI), Gilliard 2-3 (R, RBI), Hempill 1-2 (R, RBI)
W — Phipps (7IP, 9 K, 2 BB, 3 ER, 8 H)
L — Garett (1.3 IP, 1 K, 7 BB, 8 ER, 6 H)
Alex Hider can be reached at 353-3101, ext 294, or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter