Junior Will Strode battled through adversity Monday night, getting out of jams time and time again while Apollo got some late offense to defeat Ohio County 4-2 and advance to the 3rd Region Championship.
It took three pitches for this one to get off to a loud start, as senior Matthew Smith delivered a leadoff home run to give Ohio County an early 1-0 lead. Apollo responded swiftly though, getting a leadoff single from junior Will Strode with the courtesy runner Ross Milburn scoring on an error to knot things up at 1-1–all thanks to a bunt single by senior Josh Mayes.
But the game then hit a stalemate, with both teams going scoreless for the next two innings. It was back-to-back walks that helped Ohio County break the drought in the top of the fourth, as a two-out single to right by sophomore Kaden Goff made it a 2-1 game before Strode got his third strikeout the following at-bat to end the inning.
Some defensive miscues allowed Apollo to get one right back though, as a one-out error and a single by Strode had them rolling. It seemed as though it would come to a halt when Mayes hit a sky high pop up near the plate shortly after, but nobody called for it and it bounced into fair territory for an infield single to load the bases with two down.
Right on queue junior Easton Blandford lined one into left scoring one, but Milburn was thrown out at home to end the inning with things tied up at 2-2. Ohio County nearly broke things open after Strode walked three straight with two down in the top of the fifth, but a fly out to right ended the threat.
Apollo took this momentum to the plate as well, getting a leadoff single from sophomore Sam Holder, before he advanced to second on a sac bunt from eighth grader Ty Lillpop. Senior Hayden Cash then laced one into right center, doubling and scoring one to take a 3-2 lead.
A walk by junior Michael Chaney and then a bunt single from sophomore Garrett Lanham loaded the bases, with another run scoring with a walk by sophomore Grayson Smith to make it 4-2. But relief pitcher senior Caleb Lloyd was able to strikeout the red hot Strode and got Mayes to ground out to short, limiting the damage going into the sixth.
Ohio County was able to get a runner in scoring position with a leadoff walk from freshman Eli Hatfield and a delayed steal from him shortly after, but a strikeout and back-to-back groundouts sent Apollo into the bottom of the sixth with a 4-2 lead. But after a 1-2-3 inning, Strode needed three more outs with Ohio County’s 2-3-4 hitters due up in the top of the seventh.
Ohio County gave themselves a chance in the top of the seventh, getting a one-out single from senior Jaylen Walker who then stole second shortly after. Senior Ashton Farris drove to deep right centerfield a few pitches later, but Mayes caught it amidst an all-out sprint.
The throw back in, however, got away and led to Walker scoring to make it a one-run game. That was until it was deemed that he left second base early when tagging up, making it a game-ending double play that gave Apollo a 4-2 win and a spot in the 3rd Region Championship.
Head Coach Brandon Dennis tipped his cap to Ohio County following the win, saying that they came out right away and made it clear that this was going to be a battle.
“The team we played tonight was a different team than we saw the two times we saw them through the year,” Dennis said. “That was a team that was ready to jump up and bite anybody that they played, as indicated by the first batter of the game. To turn that pitch around [is tough] because he was juiced up.”
Strode was one of those players that fought relentlessly, limiting Ohio County to two runs and striking out nine despite surrendering three hits and eight walks in his complete-game performance. Dennis said while it might not have been his sharpest outing of the season, it was his most resilient.
“He’s been better this year,” Dennis said. “But he’s never been tougher. I can’t tell you guys how much I appreciate how tough he was for us tonight. He fought tooth and nail to stay in the game… For him to pitch out of that is a testament to how hard he fought and how tough he is.”
Meanwhile it was Blandford, Cash and Smith all led the way at the plate with an RBI each. Dennis was also proud of the team’s execution at the plate, as doing the little things like bunting successfully was crucial in the win.
“Our last two games we really struggled with that,” Dennis said. “We’ve been lucky to win even without executing hit-and-runs, bunts and whatever. We’ve made it a point of emphasis for the last couple days of batting practice. Today’s where we really saw it come into play. We got a couple big huge bunts down and I think that really made all the difference.”
Apollo now has little time to celebrate though, as they get right back to work in the 3rd Region Championship against Muhlenberg County at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. And Dennis said it best after the win on Monday—it’s what you play for.
“That’s what we talked about,” Dennis said. “Was the first goal being to get out of the 9th district and the second goal, the big goal, was to have a chance to compete for a 3rd Region Title. We’re there. We got there and we’re fortunate to be here. We’re not going to overlook the opportunity. I think we’re ready to go.”