By Amanda Perkins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Houston Tigers are district champs for the first time in 12 years.
Houston hosted the Mountain Grove Panthers in the Class 3 District 10 Championship game Wednesday afternoon and won in five innings, 15-5.
“This was big for our program,” said Houston head coach Brent Hall. “We haven’t done this since 2007. We’ve had a great year and this just capped it off.”
The Tigers hadn’t reached the title game since 2010, falling in the first round of district play for the past five years.
“In this game, anybody can beat anybody on a given day,” said Hall. “At a small school, you go in waves when you’ve got more talent than others. We were going through a stretch where we were rebuilding, but I still feel like on any day you can go out and beat anybody. That’s how I approach the kids every year, whether we have a great team on paper going in or not.”
Hall said while his team had big contributors, the win was a team effort.
“You always tell the kids there are certain moments when you play and you accomplish something, that everything you do is worth it,” he added. “The practice in the morning, coming in when you don’t want to, all the time and the sacrifice…this is the moment where this is all worth it. A lot of kids don’t get to experience that, so I’m happy they get to.”
The Panthers drew the fourth seed in the tournament and knocked out No. 1 Licking in the semifinal to meet two-seeded Houston in the championship. Mountain Grove has claimed the district title for four straight years, culminating in a Class 3 state title in 2016.
“The last four years, we’ve had that No. 1 seed and that’s huge when you don’t have to play that first round game and don’t have to use the pitching,” said Mountain Grove head coach Derwin McGownd. “We let a couple of games slip away from us this year early on in the conference and we didn’t get that, so we had to use our pitching to get to this game.”
The first two innings were scoreless as both teams stepped up their defense. Houston held off Grove in the top of the third. But crafty base running from Hunter Stilley and an Alex Castleman single placed the Tigers on the board in the bottom of the third, 1-0.
Mountain Grove tied the game in the top of the fourth. Gaven Vaughan reached third on an error at first, and Ethan Emery knocked him home on a triple to left field.
The Tigers broke the game open in the fourth. Walks helped Houston load the bases, then Devin Wallender singled to score Jacob Koch and Trevor Mitchell. A Cody Allen sac fly scored Braedin Groff, 4-1. But Sterling Jackson’s grand slam greatly increased Houston’s margin as they closed the inning 8-1.
“That was a big knock in our lead,” said Jackson. “To hit one here means the world to me. My whole family was here, and it felt great to be able to pull through right there.”
The Panthers came roaring back in the fifth with four runs of their own. Nick Archer singled and moved on a passed ball, then scored on a Rhett Wakefield single with bases loaded, 8-2. With bases loaded again, John Felker’s hit scored Dawson Hiler and Brendan Rogers, 8-4. Vaughan hit a sac fly to centerfield to score Wakefield and to close the inning.
Houston put together a series of singles and walks to load the bases in the bottom of the fifth. Cody Allen, Conner Wilson, Jacob Koch, Sterling Jackson, Hunter Stilley, Wylie Sisco, and Trevor Mitchell each scored, with Mitchell knocking in a double to score two to end the game on a run rule.
“We took advantage of some walks and strung some hits together, and the big hit was Sterling Jackson’s grand slam,” said Coach Hall. “That kind of took the wind out of their sails. Then they came back and thought they would make it a game, and we kept on adding on and luckily finished in five.”
Koch earned the win for Houston, pitching four innings and striking out one. “First inning, I was kind of nervous and talked to Coach because I was rattled,” he said. “It was my first appearance in a district game. But once I struck out that first batter, I felt pretty comfortable. We’ve worked so hard for this win, and to be on the mound and to get that win feels amazing.”
Coach Hall said Koch set the tone on the mound and kept the game where it needed to be.
Hiler also had a strikeout and pitched the first four frames for Mtn. Grove.
“Dawson (Hiler) was the pitcher we wanted on the mound in this spot and he did a great job,” said Coach McGownd. “Once we got past that, it was bring the freshmen in and let them try to work, and our last ditch effort was to bring in John (Felker), who hasn’t thrown a varsity inning in his career – he’s been behind the plate and in the outfield – but these kids battled and did it all year long. They’ll improve and get better with age and experience.”
It is the end of an era at Mountain Grove, as Derwin McGownd has coached his last Panther baseball game. He will now head the baseball program at Galena.
“I’ll pass the torch,” said Coach McGownd. “Mark Vaughan will take over the program, and it is in very capable hands. He will be able to continue the tradition we have built here. We’re turning it over to him with a great bunch of young kids. We let our age show at times this year and it showed today a little bit, but I’m proud of each and every one of them and I wouldn’t trade a thing in the world.”
McGownd said his team saw exceptional growth this year.
“Early on in the season, we weren’t supposed to win more than four or five games and were probably going to lose in the first round of districts,” he said. “They proved their critics wrong, they worked hard and we were competitive in the conference. And to make it to the district championship game, again, it just speaks volumes to how much these kids have grown and how much they’ve gotten better with each game we’ve played. They’re going to be a handful in the years to come.”
The Panthers end their season 10-16.
Houston is now 16-9 and will challenge Fatima on Monday in sectional play.