CHILLICOTHE — Over the course of the 2018 season, the Minford Falcons’ baseball program and the Valley Indians’ baseball program have represented the best of what the game of baseball has had to offer in the Southeast District.
Whether it was Minford’s everyday consistency and its energy that has been infectious throughout the year, or Valley’s amazing second-half surge that ultimately led to two come-from-behind, one-run victories in district play, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that Aaron Hopper’s and Nolan Crabtree’s units deserved to be at this stage.
And in a Division III, Region 11 Semifinal matchup between the two archrivals that are separated by just 10 minutes on Lucasville-Minford Road, the competitiveness that both baseball programs have displayed was evident in a thrilling seven-inning affair between the two SOC II powerhouses.
But in an affair that featured warm, at worst, conditions, Minford’s Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis stood tall in the biggest moment of his young career.
Despite allowing nine hits to the Indians, the Falcons’ co-ace battled through sunny skies and temperatures that consistently hovered in the mid-80s en route to a complete game, and Minford’s station-to-station play throughout the contest by several strong baserunning hands, along with clutch RBI singles in the bottom of the sixth by Luke Lindamood and Ethan Lauder, allowed the Falcons to claim a 6-2 victory over Indians and advance to the Division III, Region 11 Finals with its victory at VA Memorial Stadium.
For Aaron Hopper, the contest was just the latest sign of resiliency by his Falcons.
“We knew that they’ve been playing well, and we knew that we had our hands full,” Hopper said. “It was evident early. I believe that we came out a little tight. We were scared of what could happen, but I told the guys that we just needed to relax. We just need to play the same game that we have all year long, and I believe that showed in innings two through seven. We settled down. I couldn’t ask for much more out of these guys, especially when Valley outhits you and you still win the ballgame.”
The disappointment on the Valley side, however, was nonexistent — especially when one looks back to just over a year prior, when the Indians, after taking the lead (5-4) against the Falcons in Minford heading into the bottom of the fifth inning back on April 17, gave up 11 runs — in one inning — and were mercy ruled in the blink of an eye.
A year and eight days later, Valley ultimately competed in the regional semifinals, where a contest against the same program proved to be much closer.
“Tucker Williams and Cayton Ruby have been so huge in providing a lasting impact on the guys that are still here and the kids that are yet to come,” Crabtree said. “We had some culture things that we needed to fix after last year. We had a great run in 2016, then last year, we didn’t have much leadership. Tucker and Cayton stepped up, and that was huge for us this year. We just kept getting better as the season went on, and that’s all I can ask from our players. We went from having a bunch of players who weren’t ready for varsity competition at the beginning, to being in the regionals by the end of it, and playing great baseball. There’s not one thing that I am upset about at all. These guys fought, overachieved, and just battled their tails off all season.”
In the opening frame-and-a-half of action, it was Valley who had the momentum as the Indians struck first. Back-to-back singles by Jared Morrow and Tanner Cunningham — with the former legging out an infield single to shortstop — ultimately allowed Jesse Jones to drive in Morrow with his RBI base knock to right field. While Jones was gunned down trying to advance to second on the same sequence on the throw to home, the Indians were able to take a 1-0 advantage.
As the top of the second inning got rolling, the fruits of Valley’s labor looked as if it would pay off in an even bigger manner. With two outs, back-to-back singles from Cayton Ruby and Brecken Williams, along with a drawn walk by Andrew Andronis, allowed the Indians to load the bases.
Vogelsong-Lewis, however, had other ideas. With the count loaded up and the bags also full, the freshman threw arguably his best pitch of the evening by freezing Jared Morrow on a beautiful curveball that dropped off the table and caught the dependable junior looking to wipe the slate clean and get Minford out of the frame without any harm done.
From that point on, the contest changed.
Minford, who entered the bottom of the second behind by a 1-0 tally, was able to obtain a one-out walk from Reid Shultz, and the utility player then stole second. Two batters later, an throw to gun Shultz at third base immediately following a walk by Bailey Rowe glanced off of Shultz’s helmet, which allowed Shultz to score easily as the ball rolled foul well away from the third base line. As a result, the Falcons tied the game at one apiece without even having to put the bat on the ball, which ultimately forced an early exit from Cunningham as the junior struck out four but was ultimately relieved after five-and-a-third innings of work.
Then, after a steal by Rowe and an error, Vogelsong-Lewis helped his own cause by legging out a two-out infield single to the left side to allow Minford to take a 2-1 advantage, and when Brayden Davis followed with his own walk to put runners at first and second with two down, a Darius Jordan single later in the inning scored Vogelsong-Lewis. Minford had scored all three of its runs in the second inning with two down in the frame, and as a result, the Falcons had taken a critical 3-1 advantage by keeping the game to 90 feet at a time.
“With some guys, we give them the green light, and with other guys, we don’t,” Hopper said. “It was evident today. Reid took third base when Valley wasn’t expecting it, and sometimes, you’ve got to do that. You’ve got to make the opposing team make mistakes. That’s definitely a part of playing station-to-station baseball. They’ve got to make the throw every single time just like we do. We just had to make sure that we hit the ball in play, because we knew that Valley had made some mistakes early against South Point that we could take advantage of.”
“In the second inning, Tanner struggled with his command, and to Minford’s credit, they laid off of the pitches and forced Tanner to come in on them,” Crabtree said. “Then we made some mistakes, panicked a little bit, and didn’t communicate on a pickoff or a steal play.”
In the top of the third frame, Cunningham and Jones drew walks to lead off the top of the third frame, and Jake Ashkettle followed with a single to right to load the bases again. But despite a sacrifice fly RBI from Tucker Williams that cut Minford’s lead to 3-2 as the senior scored Cunningham with his deep shot to center field, Nathan McCormick followed by turning a vital six-unassisted-to-four double play as Minford, behind a rock-solid defense that didn’t commit an error all game, got out of the third inning with minimal damage again.
“We came back and put runners on base,” Crabtree said. “We just didn’t get that big hit that we’ve been coming up with. Give Elijah credit there. He was making the pitches that he needed to make, and the Minford defense made each of the necessary plays behind him. We battled to the end, but it wasn’t our night. We had a couple runners on there and had a really good chance to break the game open, but we just didn’t come up with it.”
When McCormick turned the double play, it lit up the confidence in the promising middle infielder, which was evident in the bottom of the third inning when the shortstop added in a leadoff triple to right center to start the frame. Two pitches later, McCormick scored on Shultz’s own sacrifice fly RBI, and in the blink of an eye, Minford had a 4-2 advantage after three innings of action.
From there, Vogelsong-Lewis took control. The freshman hand faced just three above the minimum the rest of the way while allowing only three innings from the fourth frame onward as Minford continued to make the routine plays to aid their promising young hand along. When the Falcons weren’t fielding groundballs, it was because Vogelsong-Lewis was sitting down Valley batters — three of them over the final four frames alone.
“Elijah settled in for the most part, and he’s been working really well lately,” Hopper said. “He had a great performance on the mound today through the heat, and the defense stepped up and played great again today, which is great to see.”
After getting the leadoff runner in the fourth and fifth frames but not scoring, the contest still proved to be a tight affair heading into the bottom of the sixth as Minford held a 4-2 advantage. The Falcons, however, got the breathing room that they desired as an leadoff error and back-to-back walks by Brayden Davis and Jordan loaded the bags just in time for Luke Lindamood and Ethan Lauder, who came through in the middle of the order by launching back-to-back RBI singles up the middle of the diamond to push the Falcons’ lead to a 6-2 margin — a margin that would ultimately end up being the final score.
“That’s why they’re there,” Hopper said. “Luke and Ethan lead the team in RBIs and have produced all year long with key hits when they have needed them. We just have to make sure that we keep doing that as the tournament goes on. The big key is getting our nine, one, and two on. That’s when our offense really starts to click, and it was evident today. In that sixth inning, we got Elijah, Brayden, and Darius on base in back-to-back-to-back at-bats, and that’s really our offense. We’ve got to get guys on with no out or one down and move them around.”
With the victory, Minford improved its record to a sterling 23-2 overall. That record got a test Friday from West Lafayette Ridgewood, who, at 21-10, defeated 2016 Division III State Champion and 2017 Division III State Runner-Up Berlin Hiland in the Division III East District Finals. Ridgewood defeated Fredericktown, 5-1, to move onto Friday’s bout.
“(Ridgewood) beat Berlin Hiland twice, once in the regular season and then in the district title game,” Hopper said. “They’ve got to be feeling really good about themselves and what they did against a perennial Division III, and before their move to Division III, a perennial Division IV powerhouse. We’ll definitely have our hands full, but we’ll prepare in the best manner that we possibly can on the short turnaround. They’ve got to play in the same conditions, so we’ll do the best that we can and get ready for Friday.”
As for Valley, the senior leadership of Tucker Williams and Cayton Ruby — who helped spark the second-half spurt that the Indians experienced in 2018 — will be missed. However, the cupboard certainly isn’t bare for Valley, who returns Cunningham, Jones, Morrow, Ashkettle, Kayden Mollette, and promising underclassmen in Andrew Andronis and Breckon Williams to the lineup.
“You’re going to see us lock horns with Minford next year,” Crabtree said. “Both teams return a lot of kids, and there will be good ballgames. We got some young players who didn’t get much time that with a year of practice and maturity, will be ready to fill those spots, and our juniors that will be seniors next year in Tanner, Jared, and Jesse will all be guys that have been in the starting lineup since they were freshmen. They’re ready, they’ll lead, and they’ll have us in a good position going forward. I have no doubt that we’re going to battle next year and have a good season, and hopefully, we end up right back here once again.”