CHILLICOTHE — When a coach, who has been a leader of the same program for more than two decades, says that a contest is arguably the finest that he’s ever been a part of, that truly is saying something special for the individuals who took part in Thursday’s Division III, Chillicothe I District Semifinal between the West Senators’ baseball program and the Rock Hill Redmen baseball program.
And what’s even better: one couldn’t find many people, if anybody at all, who would disagree with that statement.
For nine full innings, West and Rock Hill ultimately duked it out as both units — who combined for just one error until the final play of Thursday’s contest at VA Memorial Stadium — got excellent pitching performances from Drew Cassidy and Cody Lewis in the second extra-inning thriller in as many days.
Unfortunately for the Senators, a victory wasn’t in the cards.
With the score locked at a 0-0 margin in the bottom of the ninth frame, a leadoff single by Logan Hankins led to a bunt attempt by Kadin France to move Hankins over. West, however, committed an infield error on the play, and the ball itself was thrown into right field. The return throw into third base was also errant, which allowed a sliding Hankins to get up and sprint on home for the winning run as the Senators dropped a 1-0 heartbreaker to the Redmen in a thrilling, well-played affair from both pitchers and defenses.
The contest was so thrilling to partake in from Chris Rapp’s standpoint that the longtime head man of the Senators said that it was arguably the best game that he’s ever been involved in from a competition standpoint.
“It was like a boxing match,” Rapp said. “We took their best punch and they took our best punch. We battled it out to the end. I’ve never seen two guttier performances out of two pitchers that I did tonight in all of the years that I have coached, and I’ve never been in a baseball game that was as intense and as well-played as this game. It’s a shame that somebody had to lose, but that’s baseball.”
From the outset, Cassidy and Lewis were on the money as both senior pitchers played up to their class billing by throwing gritty, clutch pitches throughout the evening. The former threw eight innings of five-hit baseball while notching nine strikeouts on his own, while the latter matched the senior multi-sport standout by throwing a complete game two-hitter and striking out eight batters on his own.
“Drew is a class act,” Rapp said. “The only downside to coaching him was that I only had him for one year. We were fortunate to have him this year. He’s just a class kid.”
Both West and Rock Hill nearly struck the scoreboard in the third inning, when the Senators’ Cade McNeil led off with a double to left field in the top half of the third inning, moved to third base on a productive groundout by Brady Whitt, and was joined on base by Garrett Hurd, who drew a two-out walk. The Senators, however, couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity. Rock Hill’s Cody Lewis then reached on an infield single after a great diving attempt by Hurd — who kept the ball from rolling into the outfield — ultimately didn’t result in an out, and advanced to second on a wild pitch. The Redmen, too, were held scoreless.
Neither team threatened again until the bottom of the seventh frame, when Rock Hill obtained a one-out walk from Hankins, a two-out base knock from Jaret Bacorn, and a drawn walk by Kyle Stanfield to load the bags. However, as he had done all night, Cassidy worked around the difficult frame in a masterful fashion by striking out Brayden Friend looking to end the seventh.
After a one-out walk and stolen base by Austin Arnett ultimately didn’t pan out with a go-ahead run, both teams went into the ninth, where Hankins ultimately shot a single into the outfield to obtain the first hit of the frame in the bottom half. When Bacorn laid down the attempted sacrifice bunt, the tough play that resulted ultimately amounted to the ball sailing down the right field line, and in an attempt to gun Hankins down at third base, the ball was overthrown, which allowed Hankins to sprint in as the difference in the contest.
Rapp, however, kept a strong outlook on it that would impress many after losing such a well-played bout.
“There’s a lot of people out there who are a lot worse off than us,” Rapp said. “This is what sports is about; how to handle things, how to handle the ups and downs through adversity, and bounce back. It teaches you life lessons.”
With the defeat, West will not only say their farewells to Cassidy, but also to Marty Knittel, a four-year starter in the West system. Knittel served as the team’s cleanup hitter this past season, pitched, and played every spot in the infield over his four-year varsity career.
“We all are hurting tonight,” Rapp said. “I look at Marty. He’s been around the ballfields for the last eight years with his brothers. I’ve watched him grow up. It’s hard to say goodbye to him, but he’ll be back. He’ll be back and around.”
Still, even in the loss, West has a lot of upside. Returning ace pitcher Dylan Bradford will be back, as will Hurd, Trevor Staggs, Cade Powell, and Cade McNeil — each of whom will be upperclassmen and varsity starters for at least three years or more when the 2019 season commences. Arnett, Whitt, Joey Cyrus, Luke Howard, and Kyle Howell each impressed in several areas in 2018 and will all be back as well to give the Senators another deep outfit heading into next year.
“It took us a while to get started, and the weather had a lot to do with it, but once we got started, I really believe that we were one of the better teams in the area, and it showed tonight,” Rapp said. “We were on a roll. We just didn’t come out on the good side of the scoreboard tonight.”