WEST PORTSMOUTH — When the Southeast District Tournament Brackets were officially released on April 30, the matchup that immediately stood out to the vast majority was the West-Portsmouth pairing in a Division III, Southeast I Sectional Semifinal.
And the matchup, which paired a Portsmouth unit that defeated OVC Champion Gallia Academy, Ironton, and the Division III, Southeast II District’s No. 1 seed with a youthful West squad that exceeded expectations throughout the year, didn’t disappoint.
The two county rivals fought for control of the contest throughout as a trio of crooked frames had the Trojans and the Senators deadlocked at a 9-9 score entering the bottom of the sixth frame.
But when the plays had to be made, it was the youth that triumphed over the experience.
An infield error, a stolen base by Garrett Hurd, and another infield error allowed the .442 hitter to head home for what ended up being the fifth and final lead change of the evening, Mardy Knittel pitched a perfect seventh frame en route to throwing a complete game, and West prevailed over Portsmouth, 10-9, on Wednesday evening at Portsmouth West High School.
For Chris Rapp, it was all about how his unit handled adversity.
“They just found a way,” Rapp said of his boys. “We had been talking to them as a coaching staff about the past teams that had won sectional championships and went on to advance in the tournament. I said, ‘Every one of those teams had to battle through adversity, and one way or another, they did. (Wednesday) is going to be a tough game, but you’ve got to battle through adversity, and you’ve got to keep battling and keep fighting. Nothing good comes easy.’ They were determined tonight, from the top of our lineup to the bottom of our order.”
On the other side of the coin, it was that dreaded ‘e’ word — errors — that came back to bite Portsmouth again. Six misplays, including the pair in the final frame of action, allowed four unearned runs to cross the plate.
“Everybody’s going to make runs right now, and you’ve got to withstand those runs,” Roy said. “In the fifth inning, we didn’t. We came back in the top of the sixth to tie it, but you can’t give a No. 4 seeded team four, five, six outs an inning and expect to win a ballgame. That’s been the story of our season, and that’s what’s going to happen when you give up extra outs.”
Neither team wasted much time putting a dent into the scoring column, especially the Senators, who struck in the first inning with some lightning.
Behind a one-out single from Cade Powell and another single by Hurd, Cade McNeil’s walk allowed Dylan Bradford to drive in the game’s first run with his RBI base knock into the outfield while also keeping the bases full in the process.
However, Portsmouth starting hand Ryan Williams responded to adversity by striking out Trevor Staggs and forcing Cody Staggs into a 1-3 groundout to limit the damage in a very effective fashion.
As a result, Williams’ efforts in the first inning gave the Trojans a much-needed boost.
That boost was evident at the plate, especially in the third inning. After a single to center field by Jack Workman and an error on a sacrifice bunt by Vincent Schwamberger allowed the pair to move over to second and third, Ty Oliver drew a walk to load the bases. Williams then tied the score with his RBI base knock to left field to knot the score.
But Portsmouth wasn’t finished.
After a sacrifice fly RBI by Reese Johnson on a well-hit ball that drifted into foul territory, Mikey Potts tried to suicide-squeeze Oliver across on the very next at-bat.
While the bunt failed, Oliver got out of the resulting rundown by running to his left — dodging the tag of McNeil behind him in the process — and sliding into home to give PHS a 3-1 lead. Another RBI single by Blake Wedebrook gave the Trojans a 4-1 advantage after two and a half innings of play and a 4-2 margin after three complete following a sacrifice fly from Bradford.
Oliver, who was a terror at the plate and on the basepaths all game long, didn’t record a hit but drew two walks, stole three bases, sacrificed Schwamberger over on a bunt in a key sixth-inning rally, and scored a run to help kick the Portsmouth offense into high gear in his final high school game in a Trojans’ uniform.
“Ty is our sparkplug,” Roy said. “He’s one of them. He got on base, and we were going to test (West) by making them catch balls and throw us out. We told the guys coming in, ‘We’re going to make them field bunts. We’re going to make them field it, throw it, catch it, and see what happens.”
Portsmouth continued to do just that in the top of the fifth inning, and as a result, the Trojans put together two additional tallies on the scoreboard.
An error on Williams’ hard-hit single, along with a double from Reese Johnson, allowed the pair to advance into scoring position, and a nicely executed sacrifice squeeze play — which Potts ended up being safe on — allowed Williams to come home without trouble. A wild pitch to Wedebrook then allowed Johnson to come home, which allowed the Trojans to extend its lead to the largest margin of the contest as a result via a 6-2 tally.
But even with the four-run deficit, West never seemed phased.
And it showed in a big way during the bottom of the fifth inning — which proved to be a frame that would completely change the complexion of the contest.
After Williams did an excellent job retiring the Senators in order in the fourth, Knittel responded by leading off the fifth frame with a double, which was followed immediately by a RBI base knock by Powell. An error on a stolen base attempt by Austin Arnett — who pinch-ran for Powell — allowed Arnett to advance to third base, and McNeil followed with a RBI double to cut the Portsmouth lead to a 6-4 margin.
Then the barrage started.
Following a wild pitch — which allowed McNeil to advance to third — an infield error allowed McNeil to score and Bradford to reach base. Then, after a stolen base by Bradford, a single by Trevor Staggs and a dropped third strike that allowed Cody Staggs to reach, Buster Boggs’ persistence in an at-bat that went nearly a dozen pitches paid off as the senior’s hard-hit ball to left field was misplayed, allowing Bradford and Trevor Staggs to score as West took the lead.
From there, it only took a 1-3 sacrifice RBI from Tre’ Patrick, along with a RBI base knock from the individual who got the rally all started — Knittel — for West to take a 9-6 lead after five innings of play behind its seven-run fifth inning.
“Everybody got good, quality at-bats,” Rapp said of West’s performance at the plate. “In the past, we’d go for balls in the dirt and balls out of the strikezone. They stayed focused, were disciplined hitters tonight, worked until they got the pitches to hit, and did their jobs as a result.”
For Roy, the deflation could be seen on the second-year coach’s face.
“When you go up 6-2 heading into the bottom of the fifth inning, and the wind is out of their sails, that’s when you’ve got to step on their throat and not let up,” Roy said. That didn’t happen. Giving up routine outs in high school baseball is not going to win baseball games.”
With their season on the line, Portsmouth didn’t throw in the towel. The Trojans utilized a leadoff walk from Workman and a hit-by-pitch, along with the aforementioned 1-4 sacrifice bunt from Oliver, to put runners on second and third. Williams then followed with a clutch hit to drive in both Workman and Schwamberger, and after a stolen base by Williams, Reese Johnson followed with a critical RBI base knock of his own to bring Williams home en route to knotting the score again, this time at nine apiece.
But with its backs against the wall again, West found a way to break through.
After an error allowed Hurd to reach back, the shortstop stole second, and, two batters later, advanced home on a second infield error on a Cody Staggs groundball as the Senators took a 10-9 advantage heading into the final frame of action.
Hurd, who led the team with a .442 batting average coming into the contest, did most of his damage on the basepaths on Wednesday evening. The youngster went 1-for-3 with a walk, a stolen base, and two runs scored on the evening.
“Garrett makes things happen,” Rapp said. “I’d like to put him in the leadoff spot, but he’s just not comfortable there, and when he’s batting well over .400 from the three-hole, you can’t argue with that. He’s leading the team in just about every offensive category.”
That left Knittel in a position to show off one of his best qualities.
Despite allowing eight earned runs, the senior showed the poise and maturity that has allowed him to overcome adversity all season long in the seventh inning by retiring Wedebrook, Zach Kinney, and Bryce Wallace in short order as the Senators moved onto a date with North Adams in what will be a Division III, Southeast I Sectional Final.
“Mardy was a gamer (on Wednesday),” Rapp said. “He saved his best stuff for the last inning. He got the ball back and he was ready to throw again. He did what we needed him to do. He went the distance.”
According to Rapp, West will certainly have to be prepared to play its best baseball on Saturday morning — because that’s North Adams’ calling card.
“North Adams puts the ball in play,” Rapp said. “They don’t do anything fancy. They just get the job done. They put the ball in play, and on the defensive end, they take care of the baseball and don’t throw it around. I’d like to call them clean innings, and when you play them, that’s exactly what you’re going to get — somebody that’s going to play good defense.”
As for Roy, the loss is especially painful when one considers the kind of leaders that he loses. The second-year head coach will see a group of dedicated individuals in Oliver, Potts, Schwamberger, Wedebrook, and Williams depart a program that he is continuing to try to build.
“Out of five seniors, you’ve got two or three there that are three or four-year starters,” Roy said. “They were the rock that solidified our unit and the glue that kept us stuck together. To see them go is tough. They’re one heck of a group. The things that we’ve put them through in the two years that I’ve been here would force a lot of kids to give up and quit. However, they had fight in their hearts. I love what they did for this program the past two years, and I love them.”
Rapp said that Bradford will get the start on the mound against North Adams. West will host the No. 5-seeded Dragons on Saturday morning at 11 a.m.
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7