By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Two years ago, Willard was on the verge of playing for a state championship.
Back then, the Tigers held a 3-1 lead with one inning to play in a semifinal game against Marquette. Willard allowed three runs in the seventh inning and lost, 4-3.
Almost the same scenario played out on Friday. Willard refused to let history repeat itself.
The Tigers saw their 3-1 lead get erased in the seventh inning, but responded with a walk-off win in the eighth to defeat Ft. Zumwalt South 4-3 in the Class 5 state semifinals at US Ballpark in Ozark.
“This was just a great game to play in, whether you win or lose,” said Willard sophomore and first baseman Cooper Hampton, who scored the winning run.
With the bases loaded and two outs, Willard freshman Landon Moore drew a walk to plate Hampton and win the game.
Hampton led off the inning with a double. A pair of walks loaded the bases for Moore.
Moore and Hampton are two pieces of a young Willard lineup that has found its identity over the last month – do whatever it takes to win.
“They’ve really bought into the team mentality,” said Willard coach Scott McGee. “Those younger players really love these seniors. And the seniors have been real inclusive with them – it’s not a situation where the seniors talk down to the freshmen. So, the freshmen feel like they have a chance to shine, too.”
Willard will play Grain Valley (27-8 overall) in the Class 5 state championship game at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at US Ballpark in Ozark.
Willard plans to start senior Gavin Burk (5-1 overall, 2.24 ERA, 40 strikeouts and 25 walks in 53 2/3 innings) on the mound.
“(Winning state) has been a goal all season for us,” Hampton said. “Everything we’ve done has been about getting to this point.”
The Tigers are on the cusp of school history.
No Willard boys’ team has ever won a state championship.
The only other Willard teams to make it this far – the 2003 baseball team and two basketball teams (1966, 2006) – all lost in their state championship games.
“We got over a hump here today,” McGee said. “Out of all the years of Willard sports, to be just the (fourth) boys’ team to make it to a state championship game, it’s pretty impressive.”
Trailing 3-1 in the seventh, Ft. Zumwalt South tied the game with an RBI single from Andrew Castelli and a fielder’s choice RBI by Brady O’Brien.
It could’ve been worse. The Bulldogs had the bases loaded with no outs.
“We were able to limit the damage,” McGee said. “We gave up two, but that’s all they got. To be able to get out of that inning, I felt good about our chances with the hitters we had coming up.”
McGee admitted that the late rally brought up flashbacks of the 2019 loss to Marquette.
Amid the FZS comeback, Willard elected to keep starting pitcher Dalen Stewart in the game. Stewart said he wasn’t sensing déjà vu playing out.
“I just thought about being a competitor and competing in the moment,” Stewart said. “We did that, we came back and we’re here now.
“I knew my boys had it. They have my back.”
Stewart gutted out a complete-game effort. He threw 106 pitches and allowed six hits, three walks and three runs. Stewart, a senior lefty, also had six strikeouts in his final career start.
Stewart settled down after a shaky start. He needed just five pitches to retire FZS in order in the fourth inning.
“Dalen’s composed, he makes his pitches and he’s really tough to square up,” McGee said. “Even when you make contact on him, it’s almost like an accident.
“He can execute pitches better as the game goes along because he can make adjustments with himself. He doesn’t get in his own head, he just makes adjustments. He gets stronger.”
Willard jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second inning, with an RBI single from senior Evan Gaunt and a sac-fly RBI by freshman Hayden Rakestraw.
The Tigers took advantage of a Ft. Zumwalt South throwing error in the sixth inning to score a key insurance run and go up 3-1.
Willard (26-10 overall) has won 11 of 13 games since April 29.
“We’re just a great team with a great team bond going,” Stewart said. “We’re hot right now.”