Times Sports Editor
The Clay County 15's had a long, difficult road in its battle for a Southwestern State Championship, but claimed the title late on Monday night.
The squad came roaring out of the loser's bracket after dropping its second game of the tourney.
The Clay County squad received a bye after earning the top seed and with it an opening game against the defending state champions, South Gibson. After having finished as runner-ups to South Gibson the last couple of years, the Clay County squad had revenge on its mind.
The added motivation quickly showed as Clay County roared to an 11-1, 10-run rule victory as TJ Decker threw a five inning, complete game while allowing just two hits while striking out eight.
Tyler Wilson had two hits and scored twice while Kodie Girton went 3-for-3 at the plate with three runs scored.
"As a team, I think they wanted South Gibson," commented manager Cyle Watts. "We played like we had a chip on our shoulders. It was really nice to see how intense they were."
Coming off of that confidence building victory, the Clay County 15's may have been a little too overconfident against its next opponent, a talented Princeton squad. Having never faced them before, Clay County found that its opponent wasn't to be taken lightly as Princeton shocked Clay County, 6-4, taking advantage of six errors by the 15's as Kodie Girton was the hard luck loser while giving up just two earned runs.
The loss appeared to get Clay County's attention as it squared off against South Gibson once again in the double-elimination tourney. Clay County rocketed off to an 8-0 advantage in the first inning and held off a late rally by South Gibson to take a 15-7 victory.
Decker had four hits in the game while Coleman Craig had three hits and Bryant Pestoff, Tanner Glenn and Kole Smith all had hits.
Needing two wins against its tourney nemesis, Clay County faced an uphill struggle, but showed its mettle.
"I think that we were confident that we could double dip them," coach Kirk Smith said of beating Princeton twice. "After we lost that game (to Princeton) the kids were down. We were nervous, but I think we were confident we could win two games."
Clay County jumped out first, tallying five runs in the first inning. However, Princeton capitalized on some wildness by Clay County's Coleman Craig. Princeton parlayed several walks into a rally that had them pull ahead 7-5.
From there, the game got pretty wild.
Clay County pounded out a six-run rally in the fifth inning to take a tentative 11-10 lead. It was short-lived however as Princeton bounced right back to take a 13-11 lead. Clay County didn't stay down long however, tying the game in the bottom of the sixth inning at 13-all.
The game rolled into extra innings where Princeton looked ready to seal the championship with two runs in the top of the ninth inning.
With its back against the wall, Clay County set the table for Jordan Girton who ripped a two-run, game-winning shot down the leftfield line to force a deciding game.
Zach Hull and Pestoff each had three hits each and both Wilson and Decker drew four walks.
"I think this tourney showed the mettle that this team has," Watts said. "Last year we came back from being down 5-1 with two outs in the seventh inning to Jasper and Coleman Craig hit a three-run homerun to win it. This team just never gives up."
In the second contest, Princeton opened by piling up three runs on a base hit, walk and a homerun for a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning. But once more, Clay County proved resilient, scoring three times in its half of the inning to knot the score at 3-all.
Clay County would eventually go up 5-3 heading into the seventh inning when Princeton put a couple of runners on base via walks. With the bases loaded and two outs, Clay County was just one out away from the title, however, a ball hit deep to shortstop resulted in a throwing error that allowed the tying runs to score for Princeton.
In the bottom half of the seventh inning, it was Girton once again that came up in the clutch, driving home Bryant Pestoff from first base with a double as Clay County squeezed out a 6-5 title game victory.
Wilson, Jordan Girton and Tanner Glenn each had two hits in the win. Decker started the game and allowed just one hit in three innings of work while striking out five and Kodie Girton got the win, striking out seven and allowing just two hits in four innings.
"What I think makes this team special is that we have a lot of leadership and that makes our jobs (as coaches) easy. These kids all get along and they're really good kids too," Watts said.
Smith agreed with his fellow coach, "One of our main goals was winning Southwest State and we accomplished that, but these kids are the hardest working group I've ever had," Smith said. "We've got an optional morning practice and we usually have eight to 10 guys who come in and hit 300-400 baseballs in the morning and then another couple of hundred at night. They want to be here. I think this group of kids want this even more than the coaches do."
The victory boosts Clay County into this weekend's state tourney against New Castle, which has claimed the last three state titles. The winner of the best two-of-three series earns a spot in the Ohio Valley Regional at Mattoon, IL.