CHARLESTON — It was an exhausting but rewarding day for the Man High School baseball team on Saturday.
The Hillbillies made history, defeating Clarksburg Notre Dame 12-10 in the emotional and nerve-racking Class A state championship game at Charleston’s Appalachian Power Park.
For Man, it was the first ever state championship in a boys’ sport after seven previous state runner-up finishes in baseball (two), football (four) and basketball (one).
After the team picture was taken and the Man baseball team had a meal and packed up and went home they were honored with an impromptu parade through Man’s downtown streets on Saturday evening.
Man players rode fire trucks in the parade and hoisted the Class A state championship trophy.
It was a rewarding win for the Hillbillies, which closed out 21-12 and were perceived by many as the underdogs heading into the state tourney.
Man dodged a bullet on Thursday, beating St. Marys, 3-1, in the state semifinals, then dodged a few more in Saturday’s finals.
But in the end, Man would not be denied.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and everyone tried to make the best of it,” said Man baseball coach Larry Vance, who has a 4-3 record in four state tournaments. “You win some and you lose some but we’re fortunate enough to get this win. It was a tough one. You couldn’t relax. There were so many emotions up and down. I’m just glad that it’s over with.”
Saturday’s state title game lasted 10 innings and nearly four hours in the mid-day heat.
Tied 7-7, the Billies plated five big runs in the top of the 10th to take a 12-7 lead. Notre Dame, though, rallied to close to within 12-10 and had the tying runs on base before a flyout to deep centerfield was caught by Braden Griffin to end the game.
Back in the gut-wrenching seventh inning there was much drama.
Twice Man relief pitcher Mikle Scott Rowe took Notre Dame down to its last strike, only to walk both batters. The second walk forced in a run to tie it 7-7.
Then with a 2-0 count on Chad Morrison and the bases loaded, Rowe tossed a wild pitch.
No problem, though.
Man senior catcher Cayce Mullins grabbed the carom off the wall behind the plate and flipped to Rowe, who saved the day by tagging out Jordan Miller to send the game to extra innings and keep Man alive.
A run there and the Irish would have been state champs.
It wasn’t mean to be, though, for Notre Dame.
It’s hard to second-guess Notre Dame’s decision but it would have been interesting what might have happened if Miller had not been sent and Morrison would have stepped back into the batter’s box with a 3-0 count and the bases still juiced. The way it was going he might have been given the take sign for three straight pitches.
One more ball and the Irish would have won it.
But enough of the hypotheticals.
Man is the team that won it.
Nothing had really been seen like this before — at least not in the history of the West Virginia state baseball tournament.
One of them — the Man vs. Madonna state semifinal in 2009, resulting in a Billies’ win in 10 innings — was at least similar. The game, won by Man by a score of 5-3, was given a clever headline by a Charleston newspaper, “Man outlasts Madonna.” That ended up making the headlines segment of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno followed by a joke about the pop singer.
“Man vs. Madonna back in ‘09 went 10 innings but nothing with the amount of leads that we had like this today,” Vance said after the game. “You couldn’t feel comfortable. Even with two outs you didn’t feel comfortable until you got that last out.”
Mullins, who was 4-for-6 at the plate with two RBI in the championship game, said it was a rewarding win.
“This is the first boys’ team from Man to win a state championship,” he said. “We went out there with aggression. We just wanted it. We wanted it more than anything. We told our guys, our younger guys, last year we did not have a very good season and now here we are. It’s just unbelievable. It’s crazy.”
Griffin said Man remained confident even after the Billies blew the 7-6 lead in the seventh and nearly lost it.
“I just knew that we were going to get the job done,” Griffin said. “I just knew we needed a ground out or a flyout and it was ours. Yes, it was draining. I can barely stand right now. I knew that we were able to pull something through because we have a lot of heart. We play with our hearts. To win the first state title at Man it’s unbelievable. We were confident we could bounce back. We weren’t going to give up until the last out was made. We were playing until it was over. We gave it all that we had.”
Sophomore John Thomas Keffer was the state championship game’s winning pitcher in relief. Jake Adkins started and the Rowe then came on in the sixth.
“All year coming in we talked about making it to Charleston,” Keffer said. “But we just didn’t want to come down here to Charleston, we wanted to win it. We knew that if we just put our minds to it we could do it. In the end we had the least amount of wins and everyone counted us as an underdog but here we are as the state champions.”
Keffer said it was tough to be only a strike away from the state title only to see the game go into extra innings.
“That’s just baseball,” Keffer said. “We knew that it was going to be a tough game being the state championship game. We kept fighting. We told everyone in the dugout not to give up and that we needed everybody up and we were able to come out on top.”
First baseman Noah Maynard goes out as a state champion just like Mullins, Man’s other senior starter.
“It’s overwhelming,” Maynard said. “It really is. We worked for it for 10-plus years. This is amazing. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s a good 85 degrees right now. When you are putting everything out there on the line it seems to all go out of you. It was a great ballgame.”
Freshman shortstop Cameron Simpson said he always wanted to play on the Charleston diamond and it’s even sweeter to end the season as state champs.
“It feels amazing,” he said. “I’m shocked that we’re here right now. It’s been a really good experience for me and I’m happy with the team and with the seniors who did great. It felt really good. I always wanted to be on this field to play. It’s unbelievable.”
Rowe thanked the Man fans who were out in full force at the game.
“It’s more than exciting,” he said. “It’s a really good accomplishment to have. I want to thank all of my teammates and everyone who came out here to support us.”
Freshman Kenny Jo Adkins, who was 3-for-5 at the plate with a double and five RBI in the finals, said the Hillbillies relished the so-called underdog role.
“It feels pretty amazing to be honest with you,” Adkins said. “That’s all that you can say. It’s pretty amazing. We came in here with a good mindset and we thought that we were underestimated. We just wanted to come out here and prove everybody wrong. We played Buffalo during the regular season and it went 12 or 13 innings. We were used to this.
“Our bats came alive in the 10th inning. We knew that our hitting could come around.”
Man right fielder Baley Beckwith, who made several big catches in the outfield, including a diving snag on top of the bullpen mound in foul territory in the St. Marys game, said he was pleased with the Billies’ performance.
“It feels great. No one probably thought that we could come out here and win this,” Beckwith said. “I had a feeling that we would. Everything that I could get to out there in the outfield I would try my hardest. If it took a slide or a dive I would do it. It was a long, tough game. It was very dehydrating.”
Man DH Tyler Blair said the Billies never hang their heads once.
“It feels unbelievable. This is the first one,” Blair said. “This is the first boys’ championship that we have ever got. It’s awesome. We just kept battling and kept our heads up. That’s all that we can do.”
Left-handed starting pitcher Jake Adkins said Man just persevered.
“It was unbelievable,” Jake Adkins said. “I don’t know what to say. I’m speechless right now. We just wanted it more and in the end we got it. We kept fighting.”