THE PLAINS, Ohio —Unfortunately for these shovel-bearing Blue Devils, they finally dug themselves a hole too deep to dig out of.
That’s because the Gallia Academy High School baseball team, in falling behind by four runs three times on Thursday, fell to the host Athens Bulldogs 9-4 in a Division II sectional championship tilt at Rannow Field in The Plains.
The Blue Devils trailed 4-0 following the opening inning and 5-1 after two, then rallied to within 5-4 following four-and-a-half.
But the Bulldogs bit back in the fifth frame with three unearned runs — once again extending the advantage to four (8-4).
Finally, Athens —with ace pitcher Brendan Sano on in relief and fully in command — added an insurance marker in the sixth on Joseph Thomas’ RBI-single.
For the Blue Devils, it was their second consecutive loss as a seventh-seed in the sectional tournament, as they end their season at 15-9 and as Ohio Valley Conference co-champions.
Athens, the second seed in the sectional which defeated the Blue Devils 6-2 in a regular-season tilt 10 days ago, raised its stellar record to 21-3 — and advanced to the Division II districts.
In rallying from an 0-2 league mark en route to capturing its second straight OVC title, GAHS made a blue-painted shovel its object in the dugout at each and every contest.
However, the four-spots on Thursday, against last year’s regional runner-up and this year’s Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division champions, were just too much to overcome.
Despite the surge to get within 5-4 and with the go-ahead run on first base, the Blue Devils definitely didn’t start the game well.
In their opening at-bat off Athens pitcher Brody Rodgers, they went three up and three down on three swinging strikeouts.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs banged out four runs on five hits off Gallia Academy ace Josh Faro.
“That’s (Athens) a pretty good offensive team, and I don’t think (Josh) Faro was settled in to start. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the bullpen before the game, but it just didn’t look like he was settled in. But you can’t take anything away from Athens. They can smash it,” said GAHS coach Rich Corvin. “Once he (Faro) settled down about the fourth (inning), we were down only 5-4 at that point, but in the (bottom) fifth we give up a walk and have an error, it just fell apart there. We’re right back to being down four runs again.”
The Blue Devils got down 4-0 to begin with — when Andy Kostival and Sano singled to center to lead off, then Brock Stewart struck a double to cross Kostival and Sano.
Thomas walked with one out, then Reece Lonas laced a two-run single to left —scoring both Stewart and Thomas.
The two teams then exchanged single unearned runs in the second, as Brody Thomas led off with a single for Gallia Academy — before Braden Simms singled him home with two outs.
Sano — starting as the designated hitter for the Bulldogs — singled in Kostival, who reached on an error.
The Bulldogs finished with 11 hits off Faro, who faced 33 batters in going the distance and taking the pitching loss.
Only five of his nine runs allowed were earned, as he walked three and hit one while striking out three.
Lonas led Athens with three hits, including another two-run single in the fifth to make it 7-4.
Indeed, the Blue Devils did battle back, as they got to Rodgers for seven hits and two walks in his opening three and two-thirds.
As a team, Gallia Academy amassed 10 hits —none bigger than John Stout’s solo home run to left field in the third to make it 5-2.
In the fourth, the Blue Devils got to within 5-4, when Simms drew a one-out walk before Stout doubled to score Simms, followed by an RBI-single by Cole Davis.
However, the Blue Devils did strand seven runners —including two apiece in the second, third and fourth frames.
In the third, following a walk to Davis and a two-out double by Jeremy Brumfield, the Blue Devils had runners at second and third.
But Rodgers recorded a strikeout to end the threat, as Sano — after Garrett McGuire singled in the fourth for runners at first and second — came in and got an inning-ending strikeout of his own.
For the Blue Devils, it was all downhill from there, as Athens — combining a leadoff walk to Stewart, an error, an infield bunt single, Lonas’ two-run single and a pair of fielder’s choices — answered in the fifth for the 8-4 lead.
Sano, meanwhile, struck out five in retiring the first six batters he faced — part of eight overall including for all three outs in the seventh.
In the sixth, Stout and Davis reached on singles, as did Brumfield in the last, but Sano was bringing 85 to near 90 miles per hour heat.
Both Bulldog pitchers struck out eight Blue Devils apiece.
“I thought we got to (Brody) Rodgers pretty well. I thought if we had six hits, we could give ourselves a chance to win. Offensively, we hit the ball well, but we still had way too many strikeouts,” said Corvin. “You’re not going to win games striking out 16 times. And (Brendan) Sano throws mid-80s (mph) with a nice breaking-ball for a high school pitcher.”
For Gallia Academy, Thursday’s sectional final was the final affair for five seniors —Brumfield, Brody Thomas, Quinton Yarger, catcher Josh Davis and reserve Gabe Peck.
A year after winning the OVC outright, these young and inexperienced Blue Devils rallied for a championship share.
“We had five guys who left it all out there on the field tonight,” said Corvin. “Those five guys are special guys. Just solid kids man. Part of two OVC championship teams, they left it. I’m so proud of them.”
It was just unfortunate that the Blue Devils dug themselves too deep a hole to climb out of at Athens.
Corvin, though, is already looking ahead to next season.
“That junior class, we’re really looking forward to them, then throw in those sophomores. We’ll be excited to get chomping at it here again soon,” he said.
Paul Boggs can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2106