MINFORD — Over the course of the 2018 season, the Minford Falcons’ baseball program has just had one of those years where one can sense that something special is flying around in the air.
That special elexor culminated in two special moments that have defined the face of the newest kings of the SOC II baseball hill — relentlessness.
Ethan Lauder struck out six batters and didn’t allow a South Webster batter to get so much as a whiff of a base hit en route to a perfect game gem on the mound, and Minford, behind a four-run first inning, a six-run third frame, and nine different individuals who recorded base hits against the South Webster Jeeps’ baseball program, wrapped up its first outright SOC II conference crown in 50 years in the sport of baseball as the Falcons claimed a 13-0 victory over the Jeeps on Thursday evening in Minford.
For Lauder, along with second-year head coaching hand Aaron Hopper, the SOC II title means the world considering the amount of energy that the Falcons have made evident on their journey to becoming the premier team in the conference in 2018.
“It means a lot,” Lauder said. “We’ve put in so much work, as a team, over the offseason. We battled adversity and we’ve done all we can to overcome it, so it means a lot to get this school an outright SOC II Championship in the sport of baseball. It’s been a while, but we’re just glad to bring one home.”
“We just try to tell the guys, ‘One pitch at a time,’” Hopper said. “We definitely did that today. I didn’t realize it had been that long since a outright title for this community. I knew it had at least been almost 40 years since a conference championship, but I didn’t know it had been 50 years since an outright title. This is special. It’s special for this community.”
As for Ryan McClintic, the veteran leader of the Jeeps could only tip his cap to another impressive effort from Minford.
“We’ve got a really young group, but we’re not going to make any excuses about that because it all comes down to who performs better on the field,” McClintic said. “Minford has a good team over there, obviously. They’ve shown it all year long with their record, both inside and outside of the league. Congrats to (Aaron) Hopper and Minford. They’re a really good baseball team. It’s good for our kids to face a team like Minford. It’s just going to make our guys better.”
From the outset, Lauder was his usual self — and in fact, even more crisp, a scary thought for future opponents to think about.
After recording a strikeout and obtaining two groundouts over the first five batters that the junior faced on the evening, the co-ace of Minford’s staff struck out six of the final 10 batters that he faced en route to controlling the tempo of the game and leaving nothing to chance as far as the outcome of the contest — and the SOC II Championship — was concerned.
“From the first game on, that’s really been what Ethan’s been about,” Hopper said. “Even if he gives up a hit or two or a run or two, it never seems like he’s rattled very much by that. He goes back out there, throws strikes, and gets groundballs, and that’s what we preach. We want our pitchers pitching to contact, because even though Ethan obtained quite a few strikeouts tonight, we’re not a really big strikeout team, and we don’t have a sizeable pitching staff. We don’t have a lot of guys that are going to overpower you, but we have a lot of guys that can throw strikes, keep the ball down in the zone, and get easy, routine plays.”
Lauder, however, credited his comfort level to Hopper’s confidence in the entire Minford roster, and his teammates’ confidence in his own ability to get the job done.
“(Aaron) Hopper has taught us how to play the game with energy, and how to play the game the right way,” Lauder said. “He keeps us up in the dugout and makes sure that we’re doing the right things every day. We couldn’t do this without him, and it means a lot to us to have him here. As for my teammates, they’re always here for me. I couldn’t do it without them. They’re a special, special group of guys.”
As Lauder continued to roll on the mound, the Minford offense left nothing to chance, either, with their own special performance.
Brayden Davis’ single to the left side of the diamond and a stolen base was followed by a perfectly placed bunt single to the left side by Darius Jordan to put runners at the corners with nobody out in the bottom of the frame. When Jordan stole second base to increase the threat, Luke Lindamood — the birthday boy — cleared the bags with his two-RBI single that quickly put Minford in front in no time flat.
While Lindamood was gunned down via a 7-6 forceout after trying to stretch his single into a double, the Falcons never let off the gas in the frame. Lauder immediately followed with a single of his own, and after a pair of wild pitches, along with a walk to Nathan McCormick, had runners at the corners again with two out. Payton Davis then legged out an infield single to score Lauder, and McCormick, running from first to third all the way on the hit, then scored on an infield error via an errant throw to third base as Minford took a 4-0 advantage after an inning of play.
In the third inning, Minford kicked its offense into fourth gear as Lindamood and Lauder walked and Reid Shultz followed with a bunt single that loaded the bases, which forced South Webster to change pitchers as Dallas Copas came in for starting hand Aidan Andrews.
That move, however, didn’t slow the Falcons.
A walk to McCormick allowed Lindamood to come on around, and Payton Davis responded with his second and third RBI of the contest by scoring Lauder and Shultz. Bailey Rowe then brought McCormick around with his own RBI base knock, and after a wild pitch scored Davis, Jordan brought Rowe in with a single that took a funky hop to put the Minford lead at a 10-0 margin after three innings of play.
“It’s really nice to have as a pitcher, especially when you have them days where you can’t exactly find it and you don’t have your best stuff,” Lauder said of Minford’s loaded offensive lineup. “When you know that you have an offense behind you that’s powerful and can get runners on, get them over, and get them in, it means a lot and helps everyone out. It makes it all go smooth.”
“The basis of our offense is to just get guys moving,” Hopper said. “We try to do that in any way that we can. If we’re struggling at the plate, we’ll put down some bunts. It just depends on the scenario that sits in front of us.”
“Aidan struggled to find the strike zone early on, and a couple of hits mixed in, along with a couple of errors and throwing the ball around a little bit, got us behind,” McClintic said. “That’s kind of how it’s been for us this year. We’ve dug ourselves a hole in the very first inning, and once that unit smells a little bit of blood, they just finished us off early and killed our spirit.”
As Lauder continued to roll on the mound, the junior also was able to get yet another scoring rally going by wearing a pitch inside to get on base. Then, after a hard-hit single by Max Suter, McCormick followed with his two RBI single to score both runners and increase the margin to a 12-0 lead. Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis’ 6-4 groundout RBI allowed the Falcons to manufacture one final run across the plate.
“One of my goals tonight was to get everybody in the ballgame,” Hopper said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get everybody in the ballgame in the way I would have liked to, but guys like Max and Matthew, along with the remaining members of our team that don’t see a lot of playing time, are just as much a part of our success and this journey as everybody else. It’s not just the nine guys that start for us. It’s truly every single player on this team.”
“We just told the kids, ‘Over the last three days, we’ve played Wheelersburg, Vanceburg (Ky.) Lewis County, and Minford, all on the road. You’re not going to face better competition than that for a while in the Division IV Tournament,’” McClintic said. “‘So you can look at it as, ‘Oh man, we’ve got to play these better teams,’ or look at it as the fact that the competition is only going to make us better for Saturday, because none of these other Division IV teams are getting the same opportunity.’ I feel blessed with that, and I feel that our kids are starting to understand that as the year goes on.”
With the victory, Minford finished the regular season with an outstanding 18-1 mark, including a 13-1 record in the SOC II realm. In addition to winning the SOC II title outright for the first time since 1968 and obtaining the No. 1 seed in the Division III, Southeast I Bracket last week, the Falcons also held Wheelersburg without even a share of the SOC II title for the first time since 2004 — a wild stat that could mean the shifting of the overall balance of power in the league.
“Undisputed,” Lauder said. “First time in a long time. It’s special. We’ve got to keep it rolling, take it into the tournament, and work hard. We’re not going to settle. We’re going to keep it going.”
“As you can see, the crowd here today rivaled the Wheelersburg and Waverly games,” Hopper said. “It’s good for our kids because they’ve got something to play for. When you get butts in the seats and have that kind of enthusiasm, it’s special. It’s just different. This is the start of something that I believe will continue to grow from a community standpoint.”
As for South Webster, the Jeeps are looking to surprise their fellow Division IV foes. With a late-season schedule that included the Pirates, the Lions, and the Falcons — who are a combined 41-13 overall — McClintic believes that the combination of that late-season schedule, plus a committed drive to improve, could have the Jeeps in position to surprise.
“Our kids have continued to come to work every day and have worked hard, and they understand that building this team is a process,” McClintic said. “We’re still working. Hat’s off to our guys. They’re working hard.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT