By Tyler Thompson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
FAIR GROVE — The Ava Bears (17-5) entered the Class 3 District 11 Tournament at Fair Grove High School as the fifth seed in a loaded bracket.
On Wednesday evening, the Bears — after an early 2-0 deficit to the second-seeded Strafford Indians (17-9) — responded with the 5-3 win for the district championship.
The Bears — behind the pitching tandem of sophomore Zack Miller and freshman Andrew Dalton — held the Indians to one run in the final five innings.
The offense plated three runs in the seventh inning, as Spencer Skyles, Carter Campbell, and Zach Mendel all drove in a run — complementing Dalton’s resolve down the stretch.
“Going in, Coach just told me to throw strikes. I have a great defense behind me, so I knew that if I just threw strikes, they would back me up,” Dalton said. “I knew that we would be able to score.”
Conversely, the Bears battled a tough Indians offense, yes, but starting hurler Dillon Turner is regarded as one of the better pitchers throughout the Ozarks.
“We are just so tough as a team,” Dalton said. “We never get down, because we all know that we all have the ability to climb back from anything and never give up on each other.”
Turner allowed three hits in his four innings of work, and after allowing a leadoff walk to Thomas Emerich, was lifted for Mason Foley in the top of the fifth frame.
With a new arm on the bump and Emerich at first base, the Bears capitalized.
The Bears sent six batters to the dish, as Emerich scored on the fielder’s choice, followed by one run given via a wild pitch by Foley.
Clawing their way to a win is nothing new for the Bears, as their 4-1 win during semifinals action Tuesday against host Fair Grove took eight innings.
Head coach Rex Sawyer told his players to simply enjoy the moment and keep plugging away, no matter what the scoreboard in right field showed.
“Well, we told them that we are playing good ball clubs up here, and we have to keep every game close,” Sawyer said. “If we keep it close, good things can happen. Our kids play hard, no matter where it is. We kept telling to keep playing [and] good things were going to happen. And they did.”
After the Indians plated their final run in the bottom of the fifth, the Bears remained active on the base paths and showed patience at the plate in the seventh — when eight players stepped to the plate.
“We started to bump in a little hit here, run a little bit, and we executed in the field,” Sawyer said. “Pitchers … we were out of pitching. My one, two and three had already thrown; we been here since Monday. But those kids who came in [Miller, Dalton] just did a super job for us. This group here, they are battlers; they won’t give up.”
The Bears may have been slighted a bit in terms of seeding, but Dalton said it never affected their preparation.
“Coach does a good job just getting us where we need to be, and the juniors and seniors do such a good job with leadership roles and helping out us younger classmen,” Dalton said. “In big situations, they just help us calm down.”
Taking the ball in the fifth with the game tied at two, keeping his Bears in the thick of the hunt was priority one for the freshman southpaw.
“I just knew the biggest thing was to stay calm,” Dalton said. “It was just another baseball game, and there is going to be more after it. My team just needed me to come in and throw strikes and stay calm. That is what I tried to do.”
Sawyer said Dalton’s internal fortitude takes the pitcher from a freshman mentality to an upperclassmen without skipping a beat.
“Hey, he is a battler. He is a heck of a basketball player, but he is turning into a baseball player, too. And that is a performance, right there, from a freshman. That kid came in and sealed the deal for us.”
For Dalton and the Bears, rising to the occasion is simply in the program’s DNA, and he had one message for those who aren’t familiar with the program.
Added Dalton: “That we are really tough and are never going to give up and will always fight back.”
Now, the Clever Blue Jays (15-11) — the Class 3 District 12 winner — await the Bears.
Clever defeated Forsyth 6-5 Tuesday, and the two teams square off in the sectional round on Monday at Ava.
The Bears, of course, are champing at the bit to host the Jays.
“I am ready for it. It will be a great game,” Dalton said. “Clever is a really good team. They are going to come in ready to fight, but I think we will be ready for it.”