LANCASTER — For the South Webster Jeeps, it was another banner season — this time, on the baseball side.
Yes, a 14-14 record may not be representative of a banner year on the surface. However, when one considers the fact that South Webster overcame its early season struggles to defeat Trimble, who had won five straight sectional titles, Green, who went 12-0 in SOC I play and defeated the Jeeps, 8-4, in the pair’s first meeting in April, and Notre Dame, the SOC I runner-ups, it’s more than fair to say that South Webster earned everything they obtained.
On Thursday evening, the Jeeps proved that to everybody in the Southern Ohio area by taking a deep and talented Waterford team to the wire in a Division IV, Region 15 Semifinal affair at Beavers Field.
Unfortunately, despite coming back from an early 3-0 deficit en route to tying the score at three apiece after three and a half innings of play, South Webster wasn’t able to put together the knockout punch, and Waterford utilized a three-run fifth to knock out the Jeeps, 6-3, in the regional semifinals.
However, the loss certainly takes nothing away from what Ryan McClintic and the South Webster baseball program has accomplished during this postseason run.
“First and foremost, congratulations to Waterford,” McClintic said. “They are a good team. One-through-nine, they’re extremely solid, they’re well-coached, and hopefully, they can represent us well in the regional championship. I’m just really proud of how the guys battled tonight. All year long, it’s been a rollercoaster ride. Our record wasn’t what a lot of teams in the region usually show up with, and we’ve went against all odds, with people thinking that we couldn’t make it to region or having the thoughts of stumbling early in the tournament again. However, the guys stuck together and never stopped believing. That’s why we got an opportunity to play in this game.”
At first, it looked as if South Webster would strike first. In fact, a single by Bradley Gee, an infield error, and a well-placed sacrifice bunt by Troy Boggs allowed Jacob Ruth and Gee to advance to second and third with one down in the second inning.
However, Waterford’s Braden Bellville — who threw a complete game against the Jeeps — was able to induce a 1-3 and a 4-3 groundout to get out of the top half of the second unharmed. Bellville’s crafty work on the pitching end of the spectrum immediately proved to pay dividends for the Wildcats on the offensive side of the coin, as Waterford used a one-out walk by Riley Burns, a single to left field by Bryce Hilverding, and a two-run single back up the middle of the diamond by Tyler McCutcheon to score Burns and Hilverding and take a 2-0 advantage after two innings of play.
And, initially, the third inning looked to be more of the same.
After Alek Blevins was stranded at third base despite the senior’s one-out triple to right field, Waterford used the momentum, along with two infield errors, to add a run to its lead.
But with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the third, Shane Zimmerman responded with a play that was easily one of the best of the year.
With South Webster facing a do-or-die situation, Burns launched a hard-hit ball that looked to be destined for center field. However, the Heidelberg College signee jumped at least a foot and a half in the air within a split second to nag Burns’ line drive of a hit and double up Bellville, who was already halfway to third base on the assumed hit, to obtain a dandy six-unassisted double play.
“That was a huge play by Shane, because Waterford was kind of on us right there,” McClintic said. “If he doesn’t double them up right there with that leaping grab and subsequent forceout, you’re talking about a real uphill battle for us. Luckily, he kept us within striking distance.”
Zimmerman’s inning-ending double play proved to be huge, as South Webster put together a massive rally in the fourth inning of play. Gee, who was crucial with the bat all game long, started off the frame with a double to left center, and after advancing to third base on a 4-3 groundout, scored on an error that allowed the Jeeps to cut into the advantage.
But South Webster was far from finished.
After the error allowed Troy Boggs to move over to second base, the designated hitter stole third base and scored on Matthew Shonkwiler’s shot back up the middle of the diamond. Then, after Shonkwiler stole second base to move into scoring position, Gabe Ruth responded with another base knock to right field as the Jeeps tied the score at three aside in one fellow swoop.
“We could’ve given up early in the game, when we were down by three runs,” McClintic said. “However, we came right back and, like we’ve done this whole tournament run, turned right back around and answered the bell to tie the game. We had other opportunities, but sometimes, the ball just doesn’t bounce the right way and doesn’t find the grass. We hit some balls hard tonight that just happened to be right at guys. It’s baseball.”
Shonkwiler and Ruth, despite not having a significant amount of varsity experience at the high school level, played beyond their years at the plate on Thursday evening, with the former going 1-for-3 with a RBI and a stolen base and the latter going 1-for-2 with a walk and a RBI.
“That’s been the key to our success during this tournament run — our entire lineup, one-through-nine, being effective at the plate,” McClintic said. “Guys started to come along. Whether it was laying down a bunt, drawing a walk, or obtaining a key hit in a clutch situation, it was huge for us throughout the run. That gave everybody else confidence, because they knew that we could still do some damage at the bottom of the order.”
Unfortunately for the Jeeps, however, Waterford proved to be too strong.
After an error allowed Jordan Welch to reach base in the bottom of the fifth inning, the multi-sport athlete advanced into scoring position on a 5-3 groundout and, with one out in the frame, came home on Clay Hayes’ RBI single to left field. Then, after another base hit by Burns and a double steal by Hayes and Burns, Brock Hayes came up with a backbreaker by launching a two-out base knock to right field as both runners came across to score.
“Waterford really put together some good at-bats against Brad,” McClintic said. “They were spoiling a lot of pitches with two strikes. By the fourth inning, they had him over 80 pitches, and you could definitely tell that it kind of wore on him. He’s been a workhorse for us all year long, but I think that if you have any pitcher that goes out there and throws over 20 pitches an inning, it’s going to have an effect on him. Toward the end there, he lost command of his off-speed pitches, and they got to him a little bit.”
Still, in the top half of the seventh, South Webster showed no signs of giving up. In fact, Gabe Ruth’s leadoff walk, a hit by pitch, and a 4-3 groundout allowed Ruth and Blevins to advance to second and third with two down and Trevor Coriell — the school’s all-time leader in RBI for a season — up to bat as the game’s tying run. However, despite a well-hit ball by the senior first baseman, it proved to be right at the Waterford defense as Bellville forced Coriell into a 4-3 groundout to end the affair.
With the game’s conclusion, the Jeeps were forced to say their final goodbyes to a senior class that has been productive, to say the least, over the last four years. Zach Barnett, Alek Blevins, Trevor Coriell, Blake Fulk, Bradley Gee, Matthew Shonkwiler, and Shane Zimmerman all depart the unit.
Blevins, Coriell, and Zimmerman were multi-sport standouts who have signed to play with Shawnee State (soccer), Rio Grande (soccer), and Heidelberg (basketball), respectively, while Gee has also signed to play for Shawnee State’s baseball program in 2018. Fulk was a three-year starter, Barnett was productive in the designated hitting and infielding areas, and Shonkwiler, another multi-sport star, proved himself as a excellent outfielder in his lone season of high school baseball.
“Alek, Shane, Bradley, Trevor, and Blake played all four years, Zach’s played the last two years, and Matthew joined us this year,” McClintic said. “All of them bring a different dynamic to the team. Alek, Shane, Brad, and Trevor started all four years, and Blake’s been a three-year starter. Zach started off and on for us for two years, and really filled in well at a lot of different positions when we needed him. He was really big for us. Then, with Matthew, we really didn’t know what to expect with this being his first year. However, he was very solid defensively in center field, and produced at the plate with big hits all throughout our tournament run. Guys like that can’t be replaced. Each of them, individually, can’t be replaced, especially when you group them all together.
And it’s the leadership and resiliency of those seniors that will make the 2017 version of the South Webster Jeeps the standard for all baseball units at the school for years to come.
“I told them, ‘Guys have great seasons, and teams have great seasons,’” McClintic said. “What you all have done for our school, specifically, is setting the standard for the game of baseball at South Webster. Every little kid now is going to know the best team to ever play in the school’s history as far as baseball is concerned, and it’s the 2017 South Webster Jeeps.’ It’s not going to feel good tonight, tomorrow, a week from now, or even several years down the road (that it ended in the regional semis instead of at state). Someday, however, they’ll realize the mark that they left on this program, and I’m forever grateful because I plan on being around for a while. They have opened people’s eyes in our community to baseball again. They’ve made baseball important again.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7