Aurora has gotten everyone’s best shot all season long as the defending Class 4 state champion. The Boonville Pirates were the latest to take their swing at knocking off the champs on Friday in O’Fallon in the state semifinals.
Boonville hit the Houn’ Dawgs in the mouth in the bottom of the first with a two-out home run by Kole Ficken to take a 1-0 lead, but Aurora would respond to ultimately win 5-3.
The Ficken home run came after starter Wyatt Sparks had struck out the first two batters he faced. Sparks would shake off the home run quickly and end the inning by striking out the side. After Aurora went down in order in the bottom of the second. Sparks settled in even more by striking out the side again.
“He (Sparks) is all business. There is no other way to put it,” Aurora head coach James Hoffman said. “His mindset is ‘you got me that time, but you aren’t going to get me again’. That is the type of mentality you have to have. A lot of guys are going to fold or sulk for a while and that is lead to a couple more runs. He gets right back on the bump and he is ready to roll.”
Aurora would get on the board in the top of the third thanks to a leadoff double by Austin Erickson and a two-out single by Miah Fisher to get the score knotted at 1-1 going into the bottom of the third.
Two infield singles and a walk loaded the bases for Boonville. Ficken came back to the plate and hit a single up the middle to make it 3-1 in favor of Boonville going into the fourth.
In the fourth, Aurora started out by hitting the ball hard off of Boonville starting pitcher Jared Viertel. Both Ryan Cline and Matthew Miller barreled the ball up but just right at the Boonville right fielder.
That brought Gage Singer to the plate with two outs and nobody on.
“(I was thinking) I just have to get into a position where I can put runs across the board for the team. We just needed a tie at that point and I was trying to do anything I could to get on base,” Singer said.
Singer got all four bases as he took the third pitch he saw to right-center for a home run. Sparks strode to the plate after him with Aurora trailing by just one run at 3-2.
He responded with a home run of his own to left center to tie the game.
“That was really big for us,” Singer said. “It just turned our mood around and we knew we could do it at that point.”
“I think that (back-to-back home runs) sent a message to them that this is ours. You aren’t going to take it from us,” Hoffman said.
Sparks kept the momentum in the Houn’ Dawgs’ corner in the bottom of the fourth by inducing a groundout and getting two strikeouts to preserve the tie into the fifth.
Aurora got things going again after one out was recorded to start the fifth. Jay Lee singled up the middle, Cody Childress worked a walk and Fisher used a bunt single to load the bases. Cline would step up and hit a grounder to third. Boonville cut down the would-be run at home, but overthrew first base on attempted double play to allow Lee to score and give Aurora a 4-3 lead.
Sparks sat the Pirates down in order again in the bottom of the fifth, which gave him seven in a row.
Aurora scratched across one more run in the top of the sixth to make it a 5-3 lead.
In the bottom of the seventh, Sparks struck out the first batter he saw and then got the second batter to lineout to second.
The next batter appeared to single to right field just over second baseman Blake Williams’ head, but right fielder Austin Erickson came up firing and threw the runner out at first to end the game.
“We had just come out of no double defense. The spray chart I have on that kid is he is just dumping balls over the right side, so we moved him (Erickson) in,” Hoffman said. “Now did I move him in so he could throw a kid out from first base? Most definitely not. That is just him (Erickson). He has savvy for the game.”
“We had a similar play against Helias and I was messing with (first baseman) Matt (Miller) that I was throwing it. Then before that play happened, I told him it was coming if it came to me,” Erickson said.
Sparks finished with 13 strikeouts in seven innings in his final time on the mound for the Houn’ Dawgs.
Aurora is now on to the Class 4 State Championship for the second year in a row after a tense semifinal win.
“We told our kids for the entire run that it is a marathon and not a sprint. They compete their tails off all day long,” Hoffman said. “They are just resilient and relentless. We tell them it doesn’t matter what inning it is or what the score is. Compete your tail off every single inning, every single at-bat and every single play. That is what they did.”
The Houn’ Dawgs will face St. Mary’s (18-10) at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday in O’Fallon.
“It is what we have been working for. It is what they have been working for their entire careers thus far,” Hoffman said. “We have a state championship to defend.”