By Dana Harding
If you’re only going to have one hit, it might as well be a game-winner.
Connor Poulson’s eighth-inning laser into right field drove home Brady Owen and capped off a late Willard rally to down Ozark 6-5.
It was Poulson’s first game back from injury.
“Connor hadn’t even practiced in a week,” said Willard head coach Scott McGee. “He’s had a strained hip flexor, and tonight was the first night he’s played. We said going into that last inning, ‘Somebody just get on, and Connor will drive you in,’ and it just kind of played out that way.”
Down 4-0 heading into the fourth inning and plagued with errors, the Tigers nearly squandered any hope for a late rally.
The Ozark bats jumped on starter Tanner Norris early, with Noah Tucker, Cade Little, Chuck Hill and Forrest Barnes all notching RBIs in the first three innings.
Norris faced 19 batters in his three innings of work, allowing four runs on seven hits.
With a rising pitch count, McGee opted to go to his bullpen earlier than he wanted.
Enter Benjamin Fugitt.
While the senior right-hander had his own struggles with control at times, Fugitt managed to bear down and escape some tight spots.
In his first inning of work, in fact, Fugitt flirted with disaster.
A pair of walks paved the way for a two-out, bases-loaded jam; however, Fugitt avoided disaster with a fly out down the first base line in foul territory.
From there, Fugitt settled down and cruised through the latter innings, scattering a pair of hits and five strikeouts over four and two-thirds.
“When we were coming into this game, I thought I might throw the sixth or the seventh,” Fugitt said. “I think I ended up throwing 96 pitches, but we got the win and that’s all that matters.”
McGee praised his reliever’s performance on the mound.
“Tanner’s been phenomenal for us,” McGee said. “To not have a great start by Tanner, and then have to go to Fugitt, it was Fugitt’s best pitching performance of his career. We just kept battling and stayed in it.”
Willard’s comeback launched in the fourth, when Garrett Rice’s 2-run double got the Tigers back within striking distance at 4-2.
With Ozark starter Parker Hanks beginning to labor in the latter innings, Willard continued to chip away at the lead.
Cory Watson and Dakota Campbell hit back-to-back RBI singles in the sixth, knocking Hanks out of the game due to the 105-pitch limit.
Norris added another RBI single in the bottom of the seventh off reliever Chuck Hill to tie up the score at 5-5. Following a quick two-out performance in the sixth, Hill ran into immediate control problems in the seventh and walked the first two batters faced.
Ozark failed to score in the eighth, setting the stage for the White Tiger heroics.
Willard’s Brady Owen reached on a one-out throwing error, and a walk to leadoff-hitter Austin Russell put Owen in scoring position with Paulson up to bat.
Despite going 0-3 in the previous seven innings, Paulson simply hoped to get a pitch he could drive.
“I had three previous bad at-bats in the game,” Paulson said. “Normally, I’d get down on myself, and that at-bat would never have happened. I took a pitch inside, which was my pitch. I was kind of like, ‘Dang … I’ve got to get after that.’ so I was waiting for that pitch inside again. I saw it, turned on it and hit it hard.”
When asked about the comeback, McGee was quick to point to his team’s maturity as a primary factor.
“We just have a group of kids that behave like adults,” McGee said. “They stayed in the game mentally; they stayed in the game emotionally. This wasn’t going to be a game that somebody was going to run away and run-ruled. It was going to be a game where we had to handle the emotions of it, and I thought we were just so mature.”
For Ozark, it was yet another unfortunate, late-inning loss. Five of the Tigers’ six losses this season have come down to the final inning or extra innings.
“We just keep finding ways to lose,” Ozark head coach Mike Essick said. “Our inability to throw a strike in those innings is exactly what cost us; just inconsistency. You look at every run they scored … I know four of them were on walks, and you just can’t do that.
“In high school baseball, your best players have to step up and, right now, ours just aren’t doing it. All we can do is move forward. Tomorrow offers a new day, and thank goodness this isn’t the district tournament.”
Ozark (8-6) will look to halt a three-game skid when the team travels to Kansas for the Lawrence Tournament. The Red Tigers open play Friday, April 21, against Olathe Northwest. Willard (15-3) returns to action on Saturday, April 22, at home against Hillcrest.
Varsity Final: Willard – 6, Ozark – 5
Ozark 2 0 2 0 1 0 0 0 — 5
Willard 0 0 0 2 0 2 1 1 — 6
Hits: Ozark – 9, Willard – 7
Errors: Ozark – 2, Willard – 6
LOB: Ozark – 12, Willard – 10
Time of game: 3:02