By Tyler Thompson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
CLEVER — Throughout the course of the spring season, Clever (15-11) baseball head coach Justin Snider fielded six to eight sophomores.
And one sophomore made sure to leave his stamp on the program to date in the Blue Jays’ first district championship in seven years, as Clever stormed back from a 4-1 deficit to defeat the Forsyth Panthers, 6-5, at home Tuesday for the Class 3 District 12 title.
Tanner Bradshaw’s two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth brought his team back from the 4-2 deficit, knotting up the game, 4-4.
One inning later, with two outs and the game once again tied, 5-5, Bradshaw — a year-round baseball connoisseur — belted one to left-center field, plating Logan Peebles for the district-clinching RBI single.
“Oh, it just means so much to us,” Bradshaw said of the championship. “We go out there and work our butts off for two to three hours a day, and it just feels amazing. The energy and this field are amazing right now. Everyone is just so happy. We are just glad to be here.”
Grit and determination allowed the Jays to win the championship, yes, but throughout the course of the campaign, it also allowed the boys in blue to compete with larger programs, all the while working out the kinks that come with playing more than a handful of underclassmen.
“We just take it one pitch at a time,” Bradshaw said. “There is nothing you can really do. We just need to get runners on base. We have to do our jobs defensively and put together good team at-bats.”
The plate discipline was absent during the early going as Forsyth starting hurler Kendon Doublin constantly relied on his breaking ball and changeups, rarely exploiting the Blue Jays with the heater.
After taking the first inning 1-0 lead, the Jays surrendered four runs and didn’t score again until Trace Comer’s (2019 Drury signee) RBI double four innings later.
Bradshaw felt comfortable during his at-bat in the sixth inning, not falling for the curveball in the dirt — keeping the weight on his back foot and letting the ball travel through the zone.
“The first at-bat, he threw me a first-pitch splitter,” Bradshaw said. “I was thinking he was going to throw me a fastball soon. I took the first one up high, and I got one belt high and a little inside and I let the bat do the rest.”
A sac fly in the seventh gave the Panthers one last lead, but Clever had other plans.
While the offense is being credited with the win, and rightfully so, one senior made sure to complement his offense, as hurler Hunter Eutlser pitched three innings of relief, allowing two runs.
“Hunter did his job pitching, so we have to go through it one pitch at a time [offensively],” Bradshaw said.
While Eutlser is not a rigid, demanding leader, his cool demeanor brought about a calm throughout the dugout, even when the Jays faced the 4-1 deficit during the fifth inning.
Bradshaw said his hurler’s performance and attitude promotes better play by his counterparts.
“To go out there and pitch his heart out and give us a chance, that just says a lot about him. He’s working his tail off for us,” Bradshaw said.
While Eutlser took the win, his offense wouldn’t be overshadowed, as his hit by pitch in the sixth and seventh innings kept the offense moving.
“They are just resilient for being so young; it’s crazy,” Snider said. “The last couple of weeks have been like that. We had a rough stretch — [from] Fair Grove to the Oklahoma teams — where we just got hammered with good arms every day, and it was a rough stretch for them. But they are resilient and never quit.”
Clever and Doublin are familiar with each another, as both teams now reside in the Mid-Lakes Conference, as well as being district foes.
Said Snider: “The velocity [tonight] was slower than what we had seen. This kid gave us fits a month ago, too. We scored early and didn’t score again until the seventh. He is just a really good arm. He gets you off-balance. From the fifth inning on, I thought we did a good job at being balanced. Our younger kids really stepped up today.”
Clever has the luxury of having a balanced roster, and watching the sophomores earn their stripes while its senior hurler goes to work is a nice asset, Snider said, who also appreciates the comedic role Eutlser brings to the field each day.
“He is the most happy-go-lucky person I have ever met on a baseball field. He is just Hunter, and that is what the kids know. He is going to be goofy,” Snider said. “He usually shows up to practice wearing something weird and odd every day, and then changes into his practice gear just to get a laugh. He is always relaxed and never stresses.”Clever waits to find out its opponent at the Class 3 sectionals, as Strafford (17-8) battles Ava (16-5) Wednesday for the Class 3 District 11 title.