CHILLICOTHE — Over the course of the district playoffs, the Valley Indians’ baseball and softball programs have been involved in enough crazy finishes to last a lifetime.
There was the 15-inning thriller that the Valley softball program pulled out over Eastern Meigs in the district semifinals — a game that lasted three full hours before a winner was decided. There was the 11-inning knockdown, dragout against Wheelersburg that the baseball program had on Friday, a game that eventually ended in a 2-1 Indians’ victory. And earlier on Saturday, the Valley softball program made up a 4-0 deficit to claim a crazy 7-6 victory over Notre Dame to advance to regional competition.
So why not add in one final district thriller for good measure?
In a Division IV, Chillicothe II District Final at VA Memorial Stadium, the fans that were in attendance got everything that they bargained for.
Over the first three innings of play, Valley looked to be dead in the water as four errors had the Indians trailing by a 3-0 tally to the South Point Pointers’ baseball program through the opening trio of frames.
However, Valley never said die, and as a result, put an end to one of the greatest weeks of district tournament play in history with a furious rally to remember.
Down 3-0 through three innings, a Tucker Williams triple in the fourth and two runs in the bottom of the fifth tied the score, and from there, it was Valley who made all of the clutch plays.
With no outs in the top of the seventh frame, Kayden Mollette made a game-saving play by robbing Drew Smith of a base hit to lead off the frame — a hit that Smith could’ve scored on when Brody Blackwell followed with a double in the next at-bat. Instead, Tucker Williams was able to get out of the frame without allowing anything other than the double, and Mollette — the hero in the top half of the frame — cemented that same status in the bottom half of the frame with a walkoff single to left field as the Indians capped off a wild contest by claiming a 4-3 victory over the Pointers to advance to regional competition for the first time in six years on Saturday evening.
However, while the contest was yet another excellent display of competitiveness at VA Memorial Stadium, the never-give-up attitude is something that Nolan Crabtree’s baseball unit has been showing off all season long.
“It was a short turnaround,” Crabtree said. “However, it was an even shorter turnaround for South Point, so I can’t blame the start on that. Last night was such an emotional high. It took us a little bit to get locked back in, regain our focus, and play with the edge that we played with last night, but we did that and played excellent after the first rain delay. What our guys have done the last two weeks has been outstanding.”
For Mollette and Williams, the survive-and-advance attitude is alive and well in their minds.
“It’s awesome, especially being the tying run two years ago on second base when we lost (to Minford) in the Division III District Championship Game,” Williams said. “It was a really special feeling yesterday, and it was even more special today when Kayden got the hit tonight.”
“It feels great,” Mollette said. “We all worked really hard this season together, and now we get to keep it going.”
Initially, however, it looked as if Valley’s work would go up in smoke in the opening innings of action.
After an error and a stolen base allowed Jonathan Henline to reach, a double by Blackwell allowed Henline to score without issue, and a stolen base by Blackwell, along with an error, allowed the Pointers to take a 2-0 lead before an eye was blinked. South Point then added an additional run in the third frame as a single by Smith, a stolen base, and another error allowed the Pointers to take a 3-0 lead after three complete frames.
However, to Valley’s credit, the Indians were able to limit the damage. South Point actually had the bases loaded with just one down in the second inning, but a nice catch from Williams on a comebacker from Henline and the resulting 1-5 putout arguably saved at least two runs as the Indians kept the distance manageable. Valley also was able to load the bases in the bottom of the third frame as a leadoff single from Breckon Williams and two walks from Jared Morrow and Tanner Cunningham allowed the Indians to threaten that cushion before going down without a run in the frame — which had Crabtree hopeful for what was to come.
“The sectional semifinal against Eastern Brown is a perfect example,” Crabtree said. “We were down 4-0 before we obtained an out, but we just chipped away, and we were confident in what would happen. It was kind of like that tonight. We knew that we would shore up the defense and we knew that some of those bloop hits would quit falling. We went one-two-three in the first inning, but we barreled the baseball, and from there, I knew that we were going to be fine and make some stuff happen. This team’s resilient and gutty, and they stayed with it.”
And from the fourth inning on forward, it was Valley who had all of the momentum. Tucker Williams, who led off the fourth inning of play, led off the inning with a screaming line drive to the right center field gap as the ball sailed all the way to the fence, which allowed the senior to slide in safely at third base en route to a leadoff triple. When Mollette grounded out back to the pitcher, Crabtree put the suicide squeeze on as Cayton Ruby squared to bunt with Williams at a full sprint. Ruby missed the ensuing pitch, but the ball was low and in the dirt, which allowed Williams to slide in safely and cut the South Point lead to a 3-1 margin.
In addition to getting the rally started with his leadoff triple, Williams ultimately threw a complete game seven-hitter, striking out four batters a day after throwing two innings of one-hit baseball and notching the game-winning run on the basepaths.
“That was the best feeling that I’ve ever had, in all of my life,” Williams said of the gamewinner the night before. “Throwing the complete game just added onto it. It made it feel even better.”
“That’s a leader,” Crabtree said of Williams. “His composure’s been great all year. He stepped it up and got us going with the triple and the steal of home, even though we missed the bunt on the low pitch. His effort and leadership has brought everybody along.”
In the fifth inning, Valley continued to fight its way back into the baseball game. After a leadoff single by Andrew Andronis, an error ultimately allowed the freshman to advance to third base as an error on a Morrow grounder allowed both runners to reach. While Morrow was down trying to advance on the error, Cunningham walked, and a groundout RBI by Jesse Jones allowed the Indians to cut the lead to a 3-2 margin.
The next batter, Jake Ashkettle, then hit a fly ball to right field as the infielder put good pop on the baseball. However, as Brycen McCann tried to track the ball down, the right fielder dropped the baseball, which allowed Cunningham to come on in standing up as the Indians officially tied the score at three apiece after five innings of play.
“It started with the first Wheelersburg game,” Crabtree said. “The guys at the bottom of the order had big games up there, and from there, they started believing. We were really top-heavy before that game, and since then, it’s been everybody. You look up and down the lineup one-through-nine, and I’ve got all nine guys around 20 RBI and sniffing .300 or better. It’s just been a total team effort and you can’t say anything more about that. They’ve gone to work, they’ve grown up, and they’ve become a team.”
When neither team could get anything started in the sixth frame, the score looked as if it would remain at a 3-3 tie. But in the top of the seventh, South Point put a scare into Valley when Smith shot a line drive into right field. However, Mollette got an exceptional break on the ball, dove with his right leg at an angle toward the ground, and made the sliding play to save a sure base hit.
“I wasn’t really sure if I was going to make the catch,” Mollette said. “But I knew that we had to get a little bit of a boost, because we were a little bit sluggish. So I thought, ‘I might as well go for it and try to get us going.’”
When Valley got its chance to put the affair away for good in the bottom half of the seventh frame, it didn’t look promising at first as Cunningham and Jones went down in order to begin the frame. However, Ashkettle and Williams developed late life for the Indians as a hit-by-pitch and a walk allowed the duo to reach base.
Then for the second time in the affair, thunder hit around the vicinity of the stadium.
And with Mollette up, the situation was certainly a nervewracking one.
“It sucked on the rain delays,” Mollette said. “It was really nervewracking.”
However, when the 30-minute delay ended, Mollette was ready to go.
On the second pitch from the resumption of the at-bat, the utility player went with the pitch and sent the ball to left field, which sent Ashkettle screaming around second base en route to sending the Valley fanbase into a frenzy as the family members of retired Valley skipper Dean Schuler made the legendary coach a proud papaw — or uncle, in Mollette’s case.
“It’s the best feeling that I’ve ever had,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to have a last baseball memory. I grew up with (Dean) Schuler. That’s my grandpa and Kayden’s uncle, so I’ve learned to walk on Valley’s baseball fields. It’s a big part of my life, and I’m not done with the game yet.”
I got up to the plate after the delay, and I just went with the pitch,” Mollette said. “It was just the right pitch at the right time.”
“I’m so happy for Kayden Mollette,” Crabtree said. “He’s had some tough luck hitting the ball this year, but no kid works harder, does more, and keeps their mouth shut. He’s the most coachable kid in the world, and I couldn’t be prouder of him. He kind of jumped at the pitch before the delay, and when the delay occurred, I told him, ‘You’re going to win this ballgame, so I just want to talk to you about how you’re going to celebrate after you win this game for us.’ It couldn’t happen to a better kid. I’m so proud of the way that these guys played and the effort that they put forth. They deserve everything that they got.”
With the victory, Valley improved to 18-11 on the season and, in addition to winning each of its two district games by one run apiece, will get to play rival Minford in the Division III, Region 11 Semifinals at VA Memorial Stadium.
Indeed, how sweet it is — for a unit where a regional berth was the last thing on the minds of the players last season.
“(Aaron) Hopper and Minford have had a tremendous season and a great year,” Crabtree said. “We played in two tough ballgames and they got the best of us, and obviously they won the SOC II. We can’t ask for anything more. We get a chance to avenge our losses and get to a regional final, and it’s just fun. We’re going to have fun, we’re going to play our hardest, and let the chips fall where they may. We know what we’ve got to do this week. We can’t have an inning like we did on Saturday. We’ve got to stay with it defensively, have good approaches at the plate, and after seven innings at the plate, look at the scoreboard and hope that we will come out on top.”
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