By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Ozark, MO — As far as heavyweight battles go, Thursday’s showdown between Ozark and Willard definitely lived up to its billing.
Ozark’s 6-3 victory was punctuated by a pair of late-game sequences that proved to be game-changers.
The first took place in the top of the sixth inning with Ozark under duress and clinging to a 4-2 advantage.
Laboring at the end of his pitch count, Ozark starter Forrest Barnes had issued a single and a pair of walks to load the bases.
With sophomore slugger Garrett Rice up to bat, Ozark head coach Mike Essick made a pitching change and brought Blake Mozley.
Rice, a Missouri commit and invitee to the 2018 Kansas City Royals summer scout team, walked on five pitches and brought in a run for the white Tigers.
“That’s hard in that spot,” Essick said. “The kid hadn’t even warmed up yet, and what are you going to say? He’s in there competing and trying.”
Well aware of Rice’s power, Mozley opted to use caution while continuing to warm up on the mound.
“You can’t throw [Rice] a big ol’ donkey, like a fastball,” Mozley said. “I stayed away from him and, luckily, on the next batter the right fielder made a good play.”
During the next at-bat, right fielder Easton Hanks tracked down a deep fly ball from senior Tanner Morris for the third out, and Ozark escaped its biggest threat of the ball game.
Essick wasn’t surprised by his relief pitcher’s performance.
“That’s the thing about Blake Mozley, and you can hang your hat on it” Essick said. “It doesn’t matter. He’s just undaunted and unphased. That’s what makes him so good as a high school player. You can bring him in in any situation, and he’s just a gamer.”
While upstaging that type of sequence is no easy task, it turns out Ozark had yet another trick up its sleeve.
In the bottom of the sixth, with one out and a man on second, Essick opted to bring in Jake Harmon to pinch hit against Rice, who had relieved Norris on the mound an inning earlier.
The Ozark senior infielder turned on a 3-1 fastball and sent it sailing over the center field wall.
“I was waiting for my opportunity all game,” Harmon said. “Coach told me I was going to get one and, luckily, I could step up and do the job. I got a take at 3-0, waited for a fast ball and just hammered it.”
After the game, Essick praised Harmon for stepping into a big moment and delivering.
“We’ve had conversations about Jake,” Essick said. “And we’ve just got to try and get him more at-bats. He was just really nervous and tentative the first several games this year, and he showed tonight; he went up there and got after it. We’ve talked, and that’s what we’ve told him, ‘Jake, we need you to swing that big left-handed stick,’ and, by golly, he did.”
Harmon’s late-game blast provided a bookend to Carson Shaver’s first-inning home run to give Ozark an early, 2-0 lead. The pair led the red Tigers at the plate with 2 RBI each.
For Willard and head coach Scott McGee, failure to turn threats into big innings made the difference in the game.
“We had the bases loaded with one out early in the game and didn’t score,” McGee said. “We had the bases loaded with two outs, our clean-up hitter up, and he almost hit it out of here. At least off the double, we take the lead and it’s a little bit different, but I thought Ozark did what they had to do.”
Despite the loss, McGee was encouraged by his team’s ability to continuously put itself into scoring opportunities.
“I thought today was two great teams, and they played just a little bit better than us,” McGee said. “We threatened five of the seven innings. We just didn’t quite get that big hit when we needed it, and you’ve got to do that against a great team.”
Both teams are back in action after quick turnarounds. Ozark (11-7) hosts a double-header on Friday, April 20 against Springdale Har-Ber and Germantown, Tenn.. Willard (16-4) travels to Hillcrest on Saturday, April 21.
Ozark – 6, Willard – 3
Willard 0 0 0 1 1 1 0 — 1
Ozark 2 0 0 1 1 2 x — 2
Hits: Willard – 6, Ozark – 9
Errors: Willard – 0, Ozark – 3
LOB: Willard – 10, Ozark – 6
Forrest Barnes (5.67 IP, 7K, 6H, 4BB)
Blake Mozley (1.33 IP, 0K, 0H, 1BB)
Tanner Norris (4.00 IP, 3K, 5H, 1BB)
Garrett Rice (2.00 IP, 2K, 4H, 1BB, 1HBP)
Time of game: 1:59