Strong pitching and some late offense was a recipe for success on Tuesday, as the Eagles were able to score two runs in the top of the seventh to defeat Muhlenberg County 5-3 for their first 3rd Region Championship in eight years.
Apollo had a strong start, as eighth grader Ross Milburn stranded a runner in scoring position on the bump and then sophomore Sam Holder got a leadoff double to start the second. A sac bunt by eighth grader Ty Lillpop moved him over, later scoring on a passed ball to take an early 1-0 lead.
The Mustangs threatened a big response in the bottom of the second with a pair of singles and a hit by pitch loading the bases with two down, but a groundout to short got them out of the inning. The Eagles took that momentum to the plate as well, as a leadoff single from sophomore Garrett Lanham, a one-out single from junior Will Strode and a bunt single from senior Josh Mayes loaded the bases.
Bunt singles, sac bunts and little things of that nature was something that Apollo struggled with throughout the season—but now they’re executing small ball to a T and it’s made a huge difference in their game.
“We finally figured out that’s who we are,” Dennis said. “It took us a long time to get there. We didn’t have an identity for a lot of the year, but luckily at the right time there in the last couple of weeks of the season we started to have some success and things started to happen. We went from the team that was just scoring one or two runs a game, to scratching up enough runs to pull things back out.”
Junior Easton Blandford sent a screamer to right that served as a sac fly, while an error on a grounder to third the following at-bat scored Holder and made it a 3-0 Apollo lead. Lillpop worked the count full and walked to load the bases once again, but senior Hayden Cash grounded out to second to leave the Eagles in front 3-0 going into the bottom of the third.
Junior Noah Cook then took over on the mound, getting a 1-2-3 inning right away to keep Muhlenberg County trailing 3-0 going into the fifth. Milburn tossed the first three innings, showing poise by allowing no runs on five hits and a strikeout.
Cook handled things well in relief also, grabbing a 1-2-3 bottom of the fourth and working out of runners on the corners jam in the fifth to keep the lead at 3-0 going into the sixth. After a 1-2-3 top of the sixth at the plate for the Eagles though, Muhlenberg County loaded the bases with a single, a walk and a one-out single.
Back-to-back RBI singles by sophomore Colton Carver and junior Madox Jernigan followed, with a sac fly to center from junior Eli DeBoer the following at-bat evening things up at 3-3. But Cook managed to work himself out of the jam with a groundout to end the inning and his offense returned the favor in the top of the seventh.
It was a one-out walk by Strode that got things rolling, as a single from senior Josh Mayes and then a walk loaded the bases. And as he has late in the season, sophomore Sam Holder came up big with a two-RBI single to left that gave Apollo a 5-3 lead in the with one out in the top of the seventh.
Holder finished the day with a trio of RBIs, having gone 3-4 on the day. The sophomore has moved his way up into the four spot in the lineup with recent success at the plate, something that Head Coach Brandon Dennis always knew was there but is now showing when it matters most.
“Sam has been a guy who we knew has all the potential in the world,” Dennis said. “He has shown it in some glimpses, but in the last week and a half he’s come on like we thought and hoped he would. To be able to slide him into that four-spot tonight was huge.”
The rally would stop there though, as back-to-back fly outs stranded runners in scoring position—leaving the Eagles three outs away from a 3rd Region Championship. Cook was able to bounce back as well, shutting Muhlenberg County down 1-2-3 to shut the door on a 5-3 championship victory.
Noah grabbed the win in his four innings of relief, allowing three earned runs on six hits and a walk, striking out a pair in the process. Milburn and Cook combined to allow 10 hits—one more than the Eagles—but were instrumental in earning the win by battling to strand runners on base time and time again.
“First and foremost, we’re not in that position unless Ross Milburn steps on the mound and gives us those innings that he gave us,” Dennis said. “And holding down a three-run lead for us to get to Noah Cook… Having thrown 34 pitches on Sunday we knew there was a chance he’d start to labor a little bit, so getting those three innings out of the way and giving it to him [was big].”
Apollo was able to shine through in adversity to secure the win, but Dennis said that he was confident that his team would be able to rise in the moment—as the Eagles are no stranger to hard-fought games this year. He told them that after the three-run bottom of the sixth on Tuesday,
“I told them, ‘guys, we’re ready for this,’” Dennis said. “Because we’ve used this whole year [to prepare]. It’s been miserable at some times, but they even mentioned it last night. It got tight there, tied up—no big deal. Because they’ve been there all year long. We’ve had so many two or one-run wins it’s unreal.”
After countless trials and tribulations, Dennis couldn’t be more proud of his team’s efforts as of late—noting that they are playing their best baseball at the right time of the season.
“I don’t know that anyone would’ve picked us even a couple weeks ago to be in this position just based on our difficulty we had scoring runs and the fact that we weren’t settled in exactly in our offensive lineup and defensive lineup,” Dennis said. “We just kept rotating guys around trying to figure it out and it finally clicked last week. I would say there’s not been a time this year where we’ve played better.”
The Eagles will now get some much needed rest, as they look ahead to the State Tournament in a little over a week with their first regional championship since 2015 under their belt.
“It does feel like it’s been a little bit of a grind here, especially these three days,” Dennis said. “I was not a huge fan of making sure we jumped into the regional tournament as quickly as we could, but the one benefit that we are going to see is that with nine days off we have some time to give these guys a break and still come back and get plenty of work in and get ready to go.”