By Tyler Thompson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
SPRINGFIELD — Minutes after 5,891 fans watched the Springfield Cardinals fall 9-2 to the Frisco RoughRiders Monday afternoon at Hammons Field, the Fair Grove Eagles (16-4, 5-0) baseball team thought it should lighten the mood a bit.
The Eagles — behind starting hurler Rhett Hill’s one-hitter — bested the Clever Blue Jays 6-0 for their first Mid-Lakes Conference championship under seventh-year Eagles head coach Christian Overstreet.
Hill allowed one hit in six innings, struck out 11, and knocked in two runs.
Overstreet said winning the conference title comments on the quality play by the opposition — no matter the sport or venue.
“Our conference, every single year no matter the sport, there are teams going to the Final Four and making big postseason runs, and we are competing in a tough conference,” Overstreet said. “For us to win our conference outright with an undefeated title, that is a goal of ours every year. For us to win it, it means a lot to our team, and you have to give credit to those guys in the dugout.”
The win pushed the Eagles to a 16-4 record overall and 5-0 in conference play — a conference that is home to Clever, Forsyth, Skyline, Stockton and Strafford.
Fair Grove previously defeated powerhouse Strafford, 4-3, April 25.
“They fought for every game. We are playing pretty well right now, and that has a lot to do with close games in our conference and us having to find a way to win late,” Overstreet said.
While the offense scratched across more than enough runs, Hill’s performance was, well — pure Hill fashion.
“He threw the ball extremely well,” Overstreet said of his starting pitcher. “He is our dog. Everybody knows it. The other team knows that is the guy.”
While Hill’s ability to mix in his offspeed arsenal after painting the black all day took center stage, his offensive prowess also illuminated the Hammons Field scoreboard.
Hill hit one double, one triple, and drove in a pair to help his Eagles set the offensive tone from the onset.
Hill and Hale Beckley drove in back-to-back runs in the first inning.
Tanner Lumley and Dylan Long took notice and emulated their counterparts, as the Eagles extended the lead to 4-0 in the third.
Hill then took some aggression out on the baseball, crushing his RBI triple in the bottom of the fifth inning.
Lumley closed out the offensive barrage two batters later.
As the varsity signal caller for the Eagles football team, that bulldog mindset has transcended the gridiron and has yielded added results on the mound.
“He wants the ball. That really goes a long way with a guy who wants to be out there,” Overstreet said. “He’s a bulldog and wants to compete. Coaches put a game plan against him [Hill], [but] he just executes pitches. He throws strikes, gets ahead, and continues to produce. He is a competitor.”
Hill kept the Clever offense playing the guessing game and extending the zone for most of the game.
Of course, getting ahead 0-2 and 1-2 never hurts, either.
“It was good getting ahead,” Hill said. “It let me use my off-speed and I worked hard hitting spots.”
While Hill mowed down the Clever bats inning after inning — often going to the punch out curveball — the disciplined offense and defense behind him brought an added calmness to the mound.
The hurler didn’t hesitate when asked to comment on his teammates’ timely, disciplined offense.
Said Hill: “It is a lot easier throwing with a big lead. The pressure is gone. It makes me work harder, to know that I have an offense and a defense behind me that can shut them out.”
The game marked the second time the Eagles have caught a Springfield Cardinals game, only to take the very same field minutes later.
Hill said he and his Eagles were up to the challenge.
“There isn’t anything like it,” he said. “It is just awesome.”
The Eagles turn their sights on this week’s Miller Invitational Tournament, before hosting Buffalo May 7 and closing out the spring campaign on the road at El Dorado Springs two days later.
Clever drops to 12-9 overall and 1-3 in conference play.