In a true pitcher’s duel to the very end, it was a costly error that led to a walk-off bad knock that pushed Shelby County past the Eagles 2-1 on Friday, ending Apollo’s strong season in the state semifinals.
It was a quick first inning for both teams, as Rockets senior Kemper Whisman and Eagles junior Noah Cook got through it unscathed. Sophomore Sam Holder was the one who got the game rolling, lining one into left for the first hit of the game in the top of the second.
Eighth grader Ty Lillpop wasn’t able to move the runner over though, leaving a fly out to right by senior Michael Chaney to send Holder to third with two down. Senior Hayden Cash nearly came through with a bloop single to center, but senior Carter White was able to make a diving grab to keep things at 0-0 going into the bottom of the second.
After back-to-back strikeouts to start the bottom half, sophomore Garrett Lanham was able to make a diving stop but couldn’t get a throw off. This led to a two-out single and then a stolen base for senior Freddie Stohlmann, with a single to right from senior Tony Bailey to give Shelby County a 1-0 lead before he was caught stealing at second to send things into the third.
Following a quick inning at the plate a two-out walk by Kemper Whisman nearly helped the Rockets start another rally, but sophomore Foster Whisman’s ball to deep left center was tracked down by senior Josh Mayes to leave things at 1-0 going into the fourth. It was Mayes that helped kickstart the Apollo offense as well, lining one to right—after trying for a bunt single and ultimately taking the first pitch—going past the diving right fielder for a double.
He almost caught in a pickle shortly after thanks to a groundout to third by senior Easton Blandford, but the throw back to third to try and get Mayes went wide. This allowed him to score, as the Eagles would head into the bottom of the fourth with things tied again at 1-1.
Going into the third it was clear to Head Coach Brandon Dennis that his team was a little rattled by the early deficit. However, he had full confidence in his team and made sure to let that be known in between innings.
“We have had so many one-run games and we’ve had so many of these times where we’ve had to come back,” Dennis said. “[I said] there’s no team better equipped for this and they responded immediately. We scratched up a run and we found a way to tie it back up and make it a game we wanted it to be again.”
After a nice sliding stop and throw to first from Shelby County senior shortstop Hunter Cook ended the top half, he led off the bottom of the fourth with a single. But Chaney continued to control the basepaths, throwing out his third runner of the day at second to clear the bases.
But the Rockets got to second after all, as senior Myles Strong doubled down the left field line. A walk by junior Jaxson Carter followed, but Noah Cook was able to get a huge double play thanks to a pick at first by Blandford to stop the scoring threat.
Shelby County got another opportunity in the bottom of the fifth as well though, starting with a leadoff single from Bailey. Cook got a strikeout the following at-bat and after a plethora of foul balls a fly out to short follows. Chaney made sure the Rockets couldn’t cash in with two outs either, throwing out his fourth runner of the day to keep things tied at 1-1 going into the sixth.
It was Chaney’s efforts in the Eagles last game against Lexington Catholic that led to him starting on Friday, but Dennis himself couldn’t have predicted the senior having such a huge game behind the plate.
“He kind of just established himself as a guy who could help us control the running game,” Dennis said. “Especially in a game like this where we knew they like to run, but I never would’ve imagined he would have the game that he had. He was unbelievable today. If he doesn’t have the game that he had, they might’ve been up 7, 8-0. It could’ve been that kind of difference with what he did.”
Apollo had a good chance to respond in the top half as well, with sophomore Grayson Smith walking and then later advancing to second on a sac bunt by Mayes with one down in the inning. With Hunter Cook now on the mound for the Rockets, they put Blandford on first with an intentional walk to bring up Holder with two down.
The move paid off as well, as five straight off-speed pitches led to a strikeout looking and sent the game into the bottom of the sixth still at 1-1. The Rockets got another two-out single in the bottom half, but Noah Cook was able to get another big strikeout to send Apollo back to the plate in a 1-1 game in the top of the seventh.
The Eagles bats remained silent though, as Hunter Cook continued to fool them by mixing speeds well to send things into the bottom of the seventh tied at 1-1. It was then that Noah Cook got a leadoff strikeout before giving up a one-out single to right, thus ending his day.
Noah finished the day having allowed one earned run on eight hits and three walks, while striking out six in 6 ⅓ innings pitched in his start. The Rockets made him work all game long too, throwing a plethora of pitches to keep the Eagles in the game all day long.
“During the fourth, after the fourth I really thought we’d be lucky to get five,” Dennis said. “But there he is again in the seventh. In those late innings he’s continued to find ways to compete… he threw harder in the seventh today than he did the third. He’s just a different kind of kid.”
Junior Will Strode came in to take Noah’s place on the mound, but he was quickly met with trouble as a sac bunt turned into a collision and throwing error at first to put runners in scoring position with one down. Junior Jack Wills then worked the count before sending a bloop single to right for the walk-off 2-1 win, ending Apollo’s season in the state semifinals.
It was a hard fought game to the very end and while the Eagles didn’t come out on top, Dennis said that they played the game they wanted to but just fell short.
“Each team was playing the game that they’ve played to get to this point,” Dennis said. “Shelby has waited for the other team to make a mistake so they can pounce and we’ve tried to keep it close enough that we could scratch something up and run someone out there to hold onto it. End of the seventh it was exactly that game and unfortunately we kind of flinched first by making a small mistake that I think they’d been waiting on all day.”
Apollo struggled throughout the day offensively, as they were limited to two hits. Keeper Whisman allowed those two hits in his five-inning start while allowing an unearned run, walking one and striking out six, while Hunter Cook surrendered a walk and struck out two in the final two innings of the game to grab the win.
“Whisman did such a good job,” Dennis said. “He had just enough run and he spotted it just well enough to keep us a little off-balance. We probably could’ve made a couple of adjustments early and tried to go the other way more because he worked us outside a lot, but once they got to the Cook kid he did such a good job of changing speeds and locating all of his pitches. If we could’ve worked out of that inning, that’s a game that goes 10 or 11 innings at least.”
Apollo proved to be an extremely resilient team once again on Friday, something that has been paramount to their recent success. Dennis is ecstatic to have been able to coach this team, as their will to win is something he’s loved.
“I’m so proud of this group,” Dennis said. “Like you said they did find a way to pull it back together there at the end. They fought like crazy the last week heading into the postseason and we’re just gritty. Nothing was easy. The second win last week wasn’t easy, but we hadn’t had any breathing room whatsoever in the postseason… I couldn’t be prouder of the fact that they fought and fought and fought… At no point did we ever quit and that’s the beauty of this team.”
And while the Eagles are set to lose six seniors from their roster, the birds have plenty of key players returning from a regional championship roster that went 25-13 overall. It’s hard to look at it that way after such a tough ending to the season, but with experience Apollo couldn’t trade for now under their belts they have the potential to be a force to be reckoned with once again in 2024.
“We feel like we immediately emerge as a pretty difficult team to play at the start of next season,” Dennis said. “Because we return so much and we have so much coming back. I think this experience is invaluable. These guys are going to grow from it and we’ll use the off-season to work on some things that we didn’t do so well as a team. And hopefully, we’ll be in the mix in the 3rd Region again next year.”