By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Springfield, Mo. — Ethan Thompson was hoping for one pitch Thursday night.
Fortunately for Willard, one was all he needed.
The junior outfielder’s three-run home run in the fifth inning helped propel Willard to a 4-2 victory over Glendale in the Class 5 quarterfinals.
With one of only three Willard hits off Glendale starter Ty Wilmsmeyer, Thompson was quick to credit Tigers head coach Scott McGee for an adjustment at the plate. McGee cautioned his hitters to watch for an early curveball in the count if there were men on base.
After striking out during his first two at-bats, Thompson’s came up in the fifth with a pair of baserunners.
“His curveball got me out twice,” Thompson said. “First one I watched looking, and the second one I chased. I saw we had a guy on first and second, so I was kind of like, all right, I’m going to sit fastball, and I’m going to see a curveball.”
While Thompson got a good connection on the first-pitch swing, he wasn’t sure if it was enough to clear the fence.
“I’ve got to get to second,” Thompson said, recalling his initial thought. “I didn’t think it was gone. I thought it was going to hit off the wall or something or I’d just burned the kid. So, I was just hauling, ready to roll, and the only way I knew is my teammates coming out of the dugout.”
Thompson’s blast broke open a pitcher’s duel between Wilmsmeyer and Willard’s Garrett Rice — a duel that, up until the fifth inning, had featured only a single hit between the two teams.
Glendale was first on the scoreboard when Thomas Brand’s fourth-inning RBI scored Wilmsmeyer from third.
While Willard only managed to put a single runner on base through the first four innings, the Tigers finally broke through in the fifth.
After Cole Biellier and Reece Dawson reached on a single and a walk, Jacob VanDoren’s RBI single scored Biellier from second to tie up the score at 1-1.
Two batters later, Thompson’s heroics cleared the bases.
While Wilmsmeyer has been a notorious big-game pitcher this season, McGee was confident his team would be up to the challenge.
“We knew [Wilmsmeyer] was good,” McGee said. “We don’t worry as much about who we’re facing. We just try to stick with what we’re good at, and we’re pretty good at turning the baseball. We miss-hit a few balls early, but Ethan got a big one there. The three-run bomb was the biggest hit of our season.”
For Willard, Rice was nearly as effective on the mound, allowing just a single hit through his first four innings of work.
In the fifth, however, the junior right-hander began to labor a bit.
After getting two quick outs to open the inning, back-to-back walks and an error loaded up the bases for Glendale with the heart of the order due up.
With the Falcons threatening to seize momentum, McGee opted to make a change and brought Garrett Hunter into the game.
Monstrous moment aside, Hunter was able to focus on the mound and go to work.
“There was just a bunch of adrenaline going on,” Hunter said. “I basically located my fastball and sometimes tried to overthrow my curveball, but then I found it for a strike.”
The junior proved up to the task, getting a shallow fly ball on four pitches to end the inning.
McGee praised the right-hander’s competitive nature that helped Willard make it out of the inning unscathed.
“Garrett Hunter’s a very good pitcher, McGee said. “He comes right after people with his fastball, and that’s what he did. He got weak contact to center field, and that’s exactly what we wanted from him.”
In the seventh, Hunter found himself in a bit of trouble, putting the first two Glendale batters on base with a walk and a single.
A sacrifice fly from Max Elmer trimmed the lead to just 4-2 with two outs, and then Hunter hit the very next batter.
Once again, McGee opted for a timely change and brought Rice back to the mound to get the final out and secure the win.
“We brought in Hunter, and Hunter got us out of that inning,” McGee said. “And then it was just like he kind of realized and got a little bit nervous or something — I don’t know. So, in the seventh, we just said let’s go back to Rice. He’s our best competitor, and Rice made a big pitch to get us out of the jam at the end.”
For Glendale head coach Jim Julian, the disappointing loss pales in comparison to the season and camaraderie being over for the team.
“One pitch, one play, one bloop — anything like that can happen in baseball, and that was a well-played, fun game,” Julian said. “This is a great group of guys; they made it fun. It stinks to lose, but I just hate it being over because we can’t spend anymore time together on the field.”
Following the game, Willard’s team dedicated the performance to the late Justin Atchison.
A former pitching standout for Willard, Atchison served as an assistant coach for the team up until a hunting accident claimed his life during the offseason.
“There’s no other way but to say Atch,” Thompson said. “None of us would be here without him, and none of us would be doing what we do without someone that can commit there and help us develop like he did. I don’t know what I would do without him.”
The team presented a special game ball to Atchison’s father, Mike, who was in attendance with his family.
“What a surprise,” Atchison said. “These kids have been so loving and so kind to my whole family all year long. They loved Justin dearly, and they’re still playing for him. This was unexpected, and it’s probably one of the most awesome things I’ve ever gotten in my life.”
Next up for Willard (29-6) is a semifinal round matchup on May 31 against Marquette (23-8) in O’Fallon, Mo.
Class 5 Quarterfinal: Willard – 4, Glendale – 2
Glendale 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 — 2
Willard 0 0 0 0 4 0 x — 4
Hits: Glendale – 2, Willard – 3
Errors: Glendale – 0, Willard – 2
LOB: Glendale – 9, Willard – 1
1B: Glendale (Cole Biellier – 1, Jacob VanDoren – 1)
HR: Willard (Ethan Thompson – 1)
RBI: Glendale (Max Elmer – 1, Thomas Brand – 1), Willard (Thompson – 3, VanDoren – 1)
Ty Wilmsmeyer (6.00 IP, 8K, 3H, 2BB)
Garrett Rice (5.00 IP, 4K, 1H, 3BB)
Garrett Hunter (2.00 IP, 3K, 1H, 3BB, 1HBP)
Time of game: 1:39