Isbell, Malan propel New Covenant to final four

The Kardiac Kids struck a couple innings early.

After needing a pair of walk-off hits to advance through the district and sectional rounds, New Covenant didn't wait so long for Wednesday's quarterfinal push.

Trailing Hurley 1-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning, the Warriors rallied with a two-out, three-run flurry to take the lead and, two innings later, a 4-2 victory. Due to weather concerns, the game was moved to Ozark's U.S. Baseball Park, the former home of the Ozark Mountain Ducks.

Only fitting for the Warriors, playing on a different field, to find yet another late-inning hero in Josh Isbell.

Hurley pitcher Justice Jones had notched two strikeouts against Isbell earlier in the game; however, the New Covenant senior's third trip to the plate helped confirm an old cliché.

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Isbell ripped a bases-clearing triple into right center for a pair of RBIs, then scored one pitch later on a balk.

"All credit to Justice Jones," Isbell said. "I had two strikeouts before that. He was just painting the outside corner, and I just couldn't find it. He just left one up there and, luckily, I was able to take advantage of it."

New Covenant head coach John Hartley credited assistant coach Tyler Hartley for a key adjustment prior to Isbell's third plate appearance.

"Little Coach Hartley made a nice adjustment with him being a left-handed hitter," Hartley said. "Moved him up in the box quite a ways. Mr. Justice had been getting him out with a curveball, and he left it right on the inside half. [Isbell] didn't miss it. That was, obviously, the hit of the game."

With yet another late-inning comeback in play, the Warriors simply needed to hold down the fort.

For the third game in a row, New Covenant turned to pitcher Cody Malan for that very purpose.

Following lengthy appearances in both the district and sectional rounds, Malan turned in a complete-game, seven-strikeout performance to limit Hurley's dangerous lineup.

Just one day earlier, that same Hurley lineup scored six runs in the seventh inning to down Lockwood and keep the Tigers' postseason alive. 

While Malan's lightning-fast tempo and overpowering arsenal of pitches weren't all there at times, the Central Methodist signee had enough in the tank to go the distance and add a couple more characteristics to his wildly-efficient season.

Determination and trust.

Knowing he didn't have his best stuff, Malan didn't try to mow through Hurley's lineup on his own. The hard-throwing right-hander notched just a single strikeout in the fourth, fifth and sixth and relied on New Covenant's solid defensive play to work through those late innings.

"There wasn't much left," Malan said. "I'm sure you could tell my arm was slowing down a bit, but I was just trying to get it in there for a strike instead of just throwing the ball hard."

In the top of the sixth, the Hurley bats rallied when Isaac Carlson drove in Wyatt Pope for his second RBI of the game; however, an unassisted double play from Isbell at first base killed the comeback attempt. 

While New Covenant's bullpen was busy late in the game, Hartley stuck with his ace.

As his team took the field for the seventh, the Warriors' skipper gave his team one simple nod of encouragement, saying "You're three outs away from the final four."

An inspired Malan found another gear and struck out the final two batters of the game to send New Covenant to the Class 1 semifinals in O'Fallon.

Hartley was quick to praise his senior ace.  

"There's a reason why we call him the Minnesota Moose," Hartley said. "He transferred down from Minnesota, and he's tougher than a boot. If there would have been a runner in the seventh, he was out, and he knew that."

With the final out recorded, an overjoyed Malan pumped his fists and screamed at his own dugout.

Seconds later, he was buried by New Covenant's first legitimate postseason dog-pile.

"I'm lying there, and I'm just thinking, 'breathe … breathe … don't hyperventilate,'" Malan said. "All of the sudden, somebody jumps on, and I just get crushed. It was like, 'OK … It's a little scary, but we can get through it.'"

Next up for New Covenant (22-4) is a matchup against Northwest Hughesville (20-8) in Monday's semifinal round. The winner moves on to the Class 1 championship game against either Bell City (22-3) or Silex (14-6).

New Covenant – 4, Hurley – 2

Hurley  1  0  0  0  0  1  0  —  2
NCA     0  0  0  0  3  1  x  —  4