CHILLICOTHE — With a young unit, especially one that got to a stage that no other unit inside its program reached since 2003, it takes the experience of getting there before one can actually break through.
And in a Division IV, Chillicothe I District Semifinal contest between the Reedsville Eastern Eagles’ baseball program, the Clay Panthers’ baseball program simply ran into an opponent that was better on Wednesday evening as Clay fell to Eastern Meigs, 13-2, in a bout that was ended in five innings via mercy rule.
However, the loss didn’t dampen the spirits of fourth-year head coach Marc Cottle, especially considering that the Panthers, who finished with a 19-7 record in 2018, weren’t even supposed to appear at the aforementioned juncture to begin with.
“It just wasn’t our night,” Cottle said. “I knew that we were up against a buzzsaw, and I knew that we had our hands full. We talked to their coaching staff earlier, and found out that they had 11 seniors. The bottomline is that Eastern Meigs hit the ball. They not only got their hard-hit line drives to fall, but some of their bloopers fell in. I just give credit to them. I’ve watched their coaching staff, and they’re one of the best coached teams around.”
Eastern Meigs, who handed No. 2-ranked Whiteoak — the second Southeast District competitor that advanced to Division IV, Region 15 competition in Lancaster with its own 10-0 mercy rule victory over Waterford later Wednesday evening — its only loss this year to date, came flying out of the gates as the Eagles used back-to-back-to-back singles from Christian Maddox, Matthew Burchett, and Austin Coleman to jump out to a 1-0 lead. Nate Hurst then followed with a two-RBI single three batters after Coleman’s RBI base knock to put Eastern out by a 3-0 tally after an inning of play.
The Eagles’ impressive hitting display, however, was just beginning.
After walks by Coleman and Ethan Richmond to lead off the bottom of the third frame, a single to left field by Kaleb Hill scored Coleman and an outfield error allowed Richmond to come around in the same sequence while Hill motored his way to second base. Hurst followed with his third RBI of the game with a base hit to right field, and Owen Arix followed three batters later with a single of his own to score Hurst as Eastern took a 7-0 lead after three innings of play. Singles by Coleman and Hill, and a bases-clearing triple by Mattox, ultimately allowed the Eagles to take a 13-0 lead after four innings of work.
“Eastern Meigs was lights-out tonight,” Cottle said. “I was hoping that we would keep it close, and that if we did, we’d have a chance to keep it close there at the end, but it just didn’t work out that way.”
Despite the deficit, Clay, to its own credit, kept fighting. With one out in the top of the fifth frame, Reece Whitley drew a walk, Dakota Dodds singled back up the middle of the diamond, and McGwire Garrison doubled to left field to drive in Whitley as the Panthers fought desperately to keep the game alive. Shaden Malone then drew a walk, and with one out still on the board in the frame, Evan Woods drove in Dodds with his 6-4 RBI groundout to put Clay within a base hit from extending the contest.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, that hit never came. With Keith Cottle, arguably the team’s best contact hitter, at the plate, the senior grounded out on a shot that was hit back up the middle to the pitcher’s mound as Coleman fielded the ball cleanly and threw to first base for the out to conclude the contest.
Still, with a 19-7 record — and four freshman and three sophomores in the starting lineup on a unit that won 73 percent of its games in 2018 — there certainly wasn’t much to be down about for a unit that even exceeded the 2017 unit’s ultimate finish by garnering the district final appearance.
“I’ve never been more proud of a team as I have been with this unit right here,” Cottle said. “When you look at our age, we were probably one of the youngest teams in the tournament left, if not the youngest team. We exceeded just about every expectation that we had for ourselves. We weren’t even supposed to be in this game, but here we are with 19 wins and a district final appearance.”
The only sad part of the day for the Panthers’ baseball program, in fact, was losing Garrison and Keith Cottle. Garrison will depart the unit as a three-year starter, while Cottle started all four years in the Clay lineup. Their durability and persistence during on-the-field situations were only matched by the same qualities off of the field, according to their head coach.
“We’re sad,” Cottle said. “We’re losing two great four-year guys in Keith and McGwire. Keith was a four-year starter and McGwire played a lot as a freshmen, then started for three years. We had about 100 functions over a four-year period, and they each missed just one function during that time, with one being a quiz bowl and the other being a dentist’s appointment. They had a 99.9 percent show-up rate. That’s what we were talking about to the younger kids. When you go up in life and get a job, one of the biggest things is showing up and being on time. Even though Keith is my son, he’s been right there the whole time. He started as a freshman and won a lot of games on the mound. McGwire led us in hitting last year and has been solid as a rock for us.”
Still, with all that’s been accomplished under the Clay banner in 2018 — a runner-up finish in the SOC II realm (10-2), a Division IV Sectional Championship, an OHSBCA state ranking, and the school’s first district championship game appearance in 15 years — the expectation, as Cottle says, will only be elevated going forward.
And make no mistake about it — it will take persistence in order to follow through on the heightened expectations.
“We’ve got a lot of kids who received a lot of playing time,” Cottle said. “It’s going to be a junior and sophomore-heavy group. With the way that we pitch and play defense, all we need is a couple of runs, and we’re right there. We’re returning a lot, but we do have to get better. I challenged them. We have a lot of guys playing summer ball with various teams, and we’ll have some guys doing a little bit of fall baseball. One big thing that we did this year is hit the weight room, so we’re going to do it again this winter, try to get bigger and stronger, and come back. Baseball’s a weird game. Sometimes, when you’re supposed to be really good, you may not make it to your goals. We’ve got to make sure that we are taking the necessary steps to meet our goals.”