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Patience pays off for Fighting Irish

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After several empty trips to the state baseball tournament, the luck of the Irish finally arrived for Charleston Catholic. It just had to show some patience.

And patience made all the difference as Irish hitters drew 10 walks, survived six pitching changes between four Magnolia pitchers and just outlasted a furious seventh-inning Blue Eagles rally to score a memorable 9-8 win in the Class A state championship game Saturday afternoon at Appalachian Power Park.

The title was Catholic's first in baseball, but getting the monkey off its back didn't turn out to be as easy as it seemed when the Irish held a 9-2 lead after 51/2 innings.

Magnolia struck for three runs in the sixth to draw within 9-5 and Catholic starter Kiefer Hovorka ran out of innings at that point, yielding to reliever Rocco Wilcox.

Wilcox walked the only two batters he faced in the bottom of the seventh and Connor Golden walked two more, allowed three runs to cross the plate and faced a two-out, two-on situation with the tying run on second base and the winning run on first before getting a lineout to shortstop Hovorka to end it, setting off a mass celebration at the mound.

Hovorka, after snaring the final out, led the charge, running to the mound to tackle Golden.

"We came through - we made it interesting but we found a way to win," Catholic coach Bill Mehle said.

Mehle was making his eighth appearance in the state tournament in 12 years, but had been just 1-7 there before Friday's semifinal win over Valley.

In an almost cruel twist of fate, Mehle had to watch as Fairmont Senior fell to 0-7 in championship games under coach Steve Naternicola in the Class AA title game prior to Catholic's triumph.

"I'd lie if I said it didn't cross my mind," Mehle laughed as he spoke about the Class AA game. "But we felt really confident. The guys are a loose group of guys and they handle themselves under pressure really well. We said before this game, 'We know we will find a way to win this game.'"

Wilcox, who didn't throw a strike in walking both batters he faced, could barely speak at all through tears after the game.

"I was so tired I couldn't throw a strike," Wilcox said. "Then Connor comes in and shuts them down - I'm so happy right now. Words can't describe it, I'm so happy."

But it was the early cushion Catholic (30-9) built that allowed for that happy ending. The Irish struck for five runs over the first four innings, but collected only two hits.

The difference was drawing six walks and taking advantage of a couple of Magnolia wild pitches.

Nelson McKown, who had three hits and drove in three runs, said the early patience was a big part of Catholic's game plan.

"That's what we came in saying, 'The hits are going to come, but you've got to be patient,'" McKown said. "They get wild out there. They've got good pitchers but we watched them do that [Friday] against Notre Dame. They had [11] walks, and we thought we'd use that to our advantage today."

That plate discipline helped ignite the Catholic offense until the bats arrived later.

Thad Jameson went 2 for 3 with a pair of RBIs from the No. 9 spot for Catholic as the Irish plated two runs apiece in the fifth and sixth innings.

Even up several runs in the late innings, Mehle was still putting on bunt signs and trying to move runners over to score, feeling that even a big lead might not quite be enough.

It's hard to believe even he knew how right his instincts were.

"We knew that [veteran Magnolia coach Dave Cisar's] team was going to be ready to play for a state championship," Mehle said. "Even when we had that seven-run cushion, we knew that wasn't going to be enough. If you notice, we had [a lead of] seven runs and we were still trying to bunt our way across to get another run in, and that's just smart baseball. When you get into the postseason, you don't take anything for granted."

Magnolia (31-5), which held a 12-7 advantage in hits, came up barely short of its first state championship since a Class AA crown in 2006.

"It's great, great, great to play in the state championship and it's great to play a great game," Cisar said. "I'm real proud of my kids. Congratulations to Charleston Catholic. I hope to see you next year - and that's it."

Drew Keller went 3 for 4 with two doubles and drove in three runs for Magnolia and Ryan Walton also had three hits with two doubles. Walton and Zach Willhoite each drove in a pair of runs for the Blue Eagles.

Catholic did not register an extra-base hit.

Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, ryan.pritt@wvgazette.com, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.

 


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