By Pat Dailey (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
FORSYTH — Dillon Hester’s junior season at Strafford has followed the same pattern of his freshman and sophomore seasons. The second baseman has again been a slow starter at the plate, but a strong finisher.
Hester’s late-season surge this spring continued in Thursday’s Class 3 District 11 championship game. He delivered what proved to be the game-winning hit, an RBI triple in the fourth inning to highlight the Indians’ 3-1 triumph over Fair Grove.
Hester broke a 1-all tie by sending Wyatt Maples home on a line drive to the right-center field gap. The ball rolled on Forsyth’s speedy turf and nearly reached the fence.
“I hit it right on the button,” Hester said. “I was going three all the way. I was not stopping at two. It was exciting.”
Hester later scored an insurance run in the inning on a sacrifice fly by Sawyer Lumley.
Hester has been hot at bat of late and relates it’s typical he hits much better in May than in March and April. He doesn’t think it’s a coincidence, either, noting he doesn’t get many reps on the ball diamond in the off-season due to his concentration on football in the summer months.
Hester is a wide receiver with an eye on playing college football.
“I always hit good at the end of the season,” Hester said. “I try to come up clutch during the post-season. I don’t play summer baseball, so that’s why I think I struggle at the first of the season. I come in and work sometimes on baseball in the summer. But I do a lot of football, going to camps and stuff.”
Strafford coach Shane Pierce said Hester has hit so well recently he actually has deserved to be promoted from his seventh spot in the Indians’ batting order. But Pierce hasn’t wanted to mess with success.
“Dillon has been on fire,” Pierce said. “I don’t know what his batting average the last month has been, but it’s been really good. We keep him in the seven-hole and he keeps producing. I probably should move him up. If I was smarter, maybe I might. He’s been successful, so I’ve just left him there and will probably continue to leave him right there.”
“I’ve been proud that I’m hitting the ball hard and I’m perfectly fine hitting out of the seven-hole,” Hester said. “I’m always in a good (RBI) situation. I try to do my part as part of the bottom half of the lineup and hit the ball hard. Line drives and ground balls, that’s my job.”
Mason Foley made Strafford’s lead hold up by recording the final five outs for his seventh save in as many opportunities. He did not allow a hit.
“When you come in and shut the door like that, it really gets your adrenaline going,” Foley said. “You feel good to step up and close out the game. It’s awesome to know your team is counting on you to be the guy to come in during that situation and you shut the other team down.”
“He’s our go-to guy,” winning pitcher Tony Caldwell said. “It’s good security knowing we have someone to pick up right where I leave off.”
Caldwell finished with a pitch count of 106 and Fair Grove’s Noah Argenta threw 107 pitches over six innings.
“I’ve kind of struggled having my pitch count pretty high,” Caldwell said. “I didn’t get as far into this game as I would have liked. But everything worked out.”
Fair Grove reached Caldwell for a run in the first on an RBI double by Rhett Hill. Caldwell answered by striking out 10 batters before being lifted.
“I kept my composure,” Caldwell said. “I stayed level-headed and tried to get right back in the strike zone.”
“He got big strikeouts when we needed them,” Pierce said.
Strafford made it 1-all in the bottom of the first, thanks to a double by Foley and an RBI single by Dillon Turner.
Fair Grove (16-10) lost to Strafford (22-4) by counts of 14-2 and 5-1 in the regular season. But the Eagles were competitive Thursday.
“I knew we would come ready to play,” coach Christian Overstreet said. “We’ve been playing our best baseball these last two weeks. We didn’t come out on top today. But that’s part of it.”
Argenta, who struck out eight, earned the respect of coaches on both sides.
“He didn’t have his best stuff, but he competed,” Overstreet said. “He found a way to make pitches when he needed to. He pitched well enough to win and Tony threw well, too.”
“I’ve watched Noah play the last four years and he’s my favorite catcher other than mine,” Pierce said. “I know how hard he works in the off-season. He’s a special kid.”
Stratford (22-4) advances to Sectionals and will meet Stockton (19-7) on Monday.
“We want to get over the hump and play one more game than we did last year,” Hester said. “Our goal is to get to the Final Four.”
Fair Grove 100 000 0 – 1 5 1
Strafford 100 200 x – 3 5 0
WP – Caldwell. LP – Argenta. Save – Foley.