CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — A great start, but the Bearcats roared back.
The seventh-seeded Eastern baseball team led sixth-seeded Paint Valley 5-0 midway through the third inning of Monday’s Division IV district championship game at VA Memorial Stadium, but the Bearcats scored nine times over a four inning span and held on for a 9-8 victory.
The Eagles (17-6-1) — who had won seven straight decisions headed into play — broke the scoreless tie in the second inning, with Ryan Parker getting hit by a pitch, reaching second on an error, third on a balk, and home on a wild pitch.
Matthew Blanchard led off the top of the third with his first of two triples, and then scored on a wild pitch for a 2-0 lead. Later in the frame, EHS doubled its lead on a two-run single from Ryan Parker, and then went up 5-0 with Bruce Hawley scoring on a wild pitch.
Paint Valley, however, got four runs back in the bottom of the third, ending the shut out on a two-out error and then pulling within one on a three-run double from Connor Free.
A Dax Estep RBI single in the following inning tied the game at five, and then the Bearcats took their first lead on a bases loaded walk.
The Eagles tied it at six in the top of the sixth, with Ryan Ross reaching on a dropped third strike, and then scoring on Blanchard’s second triple of the game.
Paint Valley, however, was up 9-6 after the bottom of the sixth, RBI single by Free, followed by an two-run single from Beau Blankenship.
With two outs in the top of the seventh, Brayden Smith tripled home Brad Hawk, and then scored on a passed ball to bring the Eagles within one. However, Blaine Parker made a diving catch in right field for the final out, securing the Bearcats’ 9-8 victory.
Estep was the winning pitcher of record in four innings of relief, striking out five batters. Free started for the Bearcats, striking out two batters in three innings of work.
Conner Ridenour took the pitching loss in 2.1 innings of relief for Eastern, striking out a pair. Brayden Smith pitched the first 3.2 frames and struck out five.
Blanchard led the Eagle offense, going 2-for-3 with two triples, a run scored and an RBI. Smith tripled once, scored once and drove in a run, while Parker, Ridenour, Hawk, Hawley, Jace Bullington and Preston Thorla each singled once, with Parker scoring twice and driving in a run, while Hawley, Hawk, Bullington and Thorla each scored once.
Following the season-ending setback, first-year Eagles head coach Chris Stewart spoke highly of his departing seniors.
“I don’t know that I could have come into a situation like I did at the last minute, and have a better group of leaders,” Stewart said. “They exemplify the character you’re hoping to have, the heart and the passion, the energy, the love for the game and the love for each other. They do not let anyone get down in that dugout.
“We have a big group of seniors, and then we have some young ones, and they take these younger kids under their arm and they’re constantly encouraging them. It’s why a guy like Ryan Parker was able to step up and be the kind of player he was tonight, in a role he wasn’t expecting to play. Will Oldaker was sick today, and hey, next man up. The reason a young kid could do that is the leadership those older kids have provided, and that’s the thing we’re going to miss the most. Now we have to duplicate it, because they’ve really been the example of what you’re looking for in a group of kids that play baseball.”
Free and Blankenship led Paint Valley, each recording two hits and scoring once, with four and two RBIs respectively. Trent Mettler singled once and scored twice for PVHS, while Estep and Devlen Spradin both singled once and scored once, with Estep also picking up an RBI.
Paint Valley will meet Lucasville Valley in the Region 15 semifinal on June 3 at Beavers Field in Lancaster.
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Alex Hawley can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.