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Hoover has the finishing touch

Chip Ellis
Led by Corey Bird (arms upraised), Cody Bowen (next to Bird) and Austin Thomas (23), Herbert Hoover players celebrate after the final out against Fairmont Senior.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Herbert Hoover certainly isn't the best-starting team at the state tournament but, boy, can the Huskies ever finish.

Corey Bird's two-run single in the top of the sixth inning was the first of four straight RBI hits for the Huskies, who staged another unlikely rally to capture a 7-5 victory over hard-luck Fairmont Senior for the Class AA championship Saturday at Appalachian Power Park.

Bird, a Marshall recruit, then shut down the Polar Bears (28-7), closing the game with three scoreless innings of relief.

It marked the second state baseball title for the Huskies, matching the one they took in 2007. It was also the second straight comeback win for Hoover, which beat Independence 7-3 in Thursday's semifinals on Hunter White's walk-off grand slam - a game in which the Huskies trailed 3-0 in the fifth and 3-2 after six.

"It's amazing,'' said Hoover coach Brian Young. "They've been a very focused and driven group, and knew they had the ability to get it done. To finish it off speaks wonders to their ability, their heart and their drive.''

Like the semifinal victory, this one sure wasn't easy.

The Huskies (31-4), the No. 1 team in the Gazette's state ratings, unraveled a bit in the bottom of the fourth as the No. 2 Polar Bears scored four times to grab a 5-1 lead.

Fairmont had three hits in the uprising, but two Huskies errors also figured in prominently (leading to all four runs being unearned). During the blitz, the Polar Bears' Ryder Skarzinski was ejected from the game for bowling over starting pitcher Tristan Fields following a rundown.

After going scoreless in the top of the fifth, that left the Huskies with but six outs to recover their bearings against Polar Bears left-hander Andrew Strand, who to that point had limited them to four hits and struck out five. All they really needed was the next inning.

Bird's single lowered the lead to 5-3 and, after Strand was replaced by Matt Robbins, was followed by RBI hits from White, Ryan Shamblin and Cody Bowen. Before Bowen's single, White scored on consecutive wild pitches by Robbins, that being the run that put Hoover up 6-5. All the runs scored with two out.

"It was about time,'' Bird said. "Honestly, the past three, four weeks, we haven't put the bats together. We finally got one inning to do it, and we showed what we were. We did it at the end of the game, and that's how we are.''

Young admitted he and Hoover's other coaches had to repair his players' psyches a bit after they fell behind.

"They were able to do a lot of that themselves,'' Young said. "Once we got them calmed down and got them off the field, we told them, 'Believe in yourselves and your ability. You're here for a reason.'

"We told them we have three chances left. We've been here before. Let's do what we do, and they settled in. Several of them echoed the same thing I told them: 'We were here the other night. We're fine. Let's relax and go hit the baseball.' And that's what we did.''

From there, it was left up to Bird, who had pitched just 26 innings all season, and had already made two fine running catches in center field. But with No. 2 starter Bowen out of innings after going 61/3 in the semifinals, the left-handed Bird got the call to relieve Fields in the fifth.

Bird allowed two singles and one walk, but fanned four and permitted just one runner to get into scoring position. That was Brandon Plivelich, who had the first of two singles by the Polar Bears in the sixth, but was erased when Robbins' too-hard bunt down the third-base line went directly to Bowen, who stepped on the bag for the second out. Bird had no problems after that.

"I dreamed about this ever since we lost [in the state finals] last year,'' Bird said. "I thought about pitching in this game - probably the last game I'll ever be on the mound. It's a great way to go out.''

On the other side of the field, Fairmont Senior's players and coaches were feeling a bit woozy. For the sixth time since 2003, their program lost in the state finals, all but Saturday's in AAA.

Overall, the Polar Bears are 0-8 in the title game, 0-7 under 24th-year coach Steve Naternicola.

"They're all tough when you come down here,'' Naternicola said. "We had the opportunity to score more runs, and we didn't. We can blame that on us. But this is the first time we've come down here and not made an error. That's probably a world record for us.''

Naternicola wanted to milk all the innings he could out of Strand, who went 52/3 innings Saturday after pitching four in Thursday's 10-inning win against Bridgeport.

"I took Andrew out because he was getting tired,'' Naternicola said, "and Matt wanted the ball. And they hit him. I knew they had trouble hitting lefties because when they played Sissonville [and Zach Null in the regional semifinal], that pitcher had nine strikeouts. So I tried to go with my lefty as much as I could.''

Things looked good for the Polar Bears through five innings, as their big fourth put them in control. They were helped by a pair of crazy plays that came back to back.

With runners at first and third and none out in a 1-1 game, Gage Hannah plopped down a bunt that landed a few feet in front of the plate. Scooter Farmer, Hoover's catcher, picked it up and went to tag pinch-runner Matthew Strand, who was sliding home. Strand was ruled safe, which was disputed by Farmer, who continued to sit on the ground holding the ball up even as the other runners advanced to second and third.

The next batter, Plivelich, hit a come-backer to Fields, trapping Skarzinski off third base and forcing a 1-2-5-1 rundown, with Fields applying the tag at home. On the play, Skarzinski was tossed for blasting into Fields, who came up throwing wildly to third, allowing two more runs to score.

However, after a lengthy delay, those runners were sent back to first and second as the play was ruled dead following Skarzinski's ejection.

"The official made the call, and evidently it was correct,'' Naternicola said. "I told [Skarzinski] to make contact with the guy in the baseline. I didn't know he was going to roll him over. He's used to playing football.''

Farmer watched the play develop on the rundown.

"He tried to lower his shoulder,'' Farmer said, "and then I don't know what happened. We threw him out, and he was out. All that matters now is that we won.''

After that, Bailey Mohr and Robbins donated RBI singles for Fairmont Senior, and the other run scored on an errant pickoff throw by Fields.

Admittedly, the Huskies were momentarily dazed, but certainly not confused, or even close to overwhelmed.

"We don't give up,'' said Fields, who started for a second straight game after leaving Thursday's contest when he took a batted ball off the leg in the first inning.

"We play until the final out. That's what we say every practice - we don't give up. We're not going to give up. You may have us down 10-0, but we're still going to try to win the game. And that's what we did. We stayed in the game and got hits.''

Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazette.com.

 


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