By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
BRANSON – No matter how the previous season ended or how many graduated players the team must replace, there’s one question Willard baseball coach Scott McGee asks each year.
Can the Tigers compete for a district championship?
“You win the district, anything can happen,” McGee said. “And last year, anything did happen.”
McGee was referencing the Willard team that won the program’s first state title one year ago. If Sunday’s result is any indication, the Tigers have an excellent chance at competing for another.
The Tigers cruised to their eighth district championship in the past 10 seasons – and third in a row – with a 6-0 victory over Glendale in a battle of the state’s highest-ranked Class 5 teams.
Willard, the District 6 champion, will host District 5 winner Helias Catholic on Saturday with a chance to advance to the Final Four for the third consecutive season – and fifth time in a decade.
“Every year, we’re just trying to get to this game and find a way to win it,” McGee said. “Now there are only eight teams left in the state – and we’re one of them and we get to play at home. We’re excited about the opportunity.”
Willard’s stretch of district dominance goes well beyond the past three seasons.
The top-ranked Tigers (31-7) reached the district title game for the 11th consecutive season – and improved their record to 8-3 in those games. The losses came in 2011, 2015 and 2018.
To get out of the district this year, they needed to go through a second-ranked Glendale team that had already set a school record for wins (25-7) and was a two-time defending district champion.
But Kade Biellier and Cooper Wilken combined to throw a two-hit shutout and Owen Bushnell hit RBI doubles during first- and fifth-inning surges to help the Tigers avoid an upset at Pirate Park.
“We are excited about knocking off Glendale because Glendale is really good,” McGee said. “We said early in the year, we thought they were every bit as good as us. It was good for us to find a way to win this one today.”
The Tigers haven’t had much of a problem finding a way to beat the Falcons in recent seasons.
Willard is now 7-0 against Glendale in the past three years and has ended Glendale’s season in each of those campaigns. That includes a 3-0 victory in last year’s state quarterfinals.
“Might have nightmares about Willard for a while,” Falcons coach Jim Julian said. “Obviously, they’re a good program and a good team. It’s just one of those things that we’ve got to figure out a way to beat them.”
Willard’s formula on Sunday: Effective pitching, spectacular defense and timely hitting.
Biellier, a Drury commit, took a no-hitter into the fourth inning before Alex Rankin broke it up with a one-out single to left. The Falcons loaded the bases with two outs and sent in a pinch hitter, prompting McGee to make a pitching change.
Wilken got a strikeout to end the threat, then allowed just one hit – and two baserunners – the rest of the night as the Willard pitchers combined to record seven strikeouts and issue five walks.
McGee noted the Tigers graduated ace Dalen Stewart – who he has touted as perhaps the greatest pitcher to ever throw for Willard – but their overall pitching has improved from last year, even with just three seniors on the roster.
“We don’t have Dalen, but our pitching depth is so much better,” the coach added. “We have just been able to combo games like crazy and really do some good things on the mound. We don’t have that guy who’s just going to come out and go seven innings and throw a two-hitter, but we threw a two-hitter with our two best guys. That’s just kind of how we’re chopping up games right now.”
The Willard defense helped the pitchers with a couple of highlight-reel plays.
Center fielder Kyle Beeman’s diving catch robbed an extra-base hit and ended the second inning. Biellier, who moved to right field after pitching, took away a single by throwing out a runner at first.
“Those are some huge moments,” Bushnell said. “Beemer’s catch was insane. That was wild. I was out there in right (field) when it happened and that was one of the cooler things I’ve ever seen. That was just a huge moment. Then Kade’s throw down to first, it’s a good example of everyone being locked in.”
Even as the Tigers have cruised through their schedule, winning at an 81.5 percent pace, McGee said they truly haven’t been playing to their full potential until about a month ago.
“I’ve said all along I thought we were the most talented team in Class 5,” McGee said. “Until about four weeks ago, we just weren’t playing really good baseball. We were just winning based off talent. Now we’re starting to play really good baseball. You saw that today. We just did a lot of good baseball things.”
The Tigers scored three runs in the first inning – Cooper Hampton and Bushnell had RBI doubles, while Kyden McMain added a sacrifice fly – but truly didn’t take control until the bottom of the fifth.
Biellier singled, Hampton got hit by a pitch and Klayton Kiser walked to load the bases with one out. Biellier scored on a wild pitch, then Bushnell smacked a two-out double to make it a 6-0 advantage.
Six outs later, the Tigers were back in the state playoffs – and three wins away from another title.
“The hours we put in and the work we do and the culture around winning in our program is awesome to be around,” said Bushnell, who drove in three runs. “I, for one, want this so bad. Not many teams get the chance to repeat a state title. They either lose a bunch of guys – we lost some really key leaders – but we have had so many guys step up, especially our pitching staff that has given us an opportunity to get in the situation. It’s pretty exciting.”
With 25 victories, Glendale currently has more wins than all but one of the other nine teams who currently have a chance to win the Class 5 state title. Seven district champions have already been crowned, while Festus and Windsor (Imperial) will play for the District 1 title Monday.
But Glendale’s season is once again over, thanks to the team with more wins than any of them.
“In the format that we have – a single-elimination thing – one game doesn’t define your season,” Julian said. “It hurts and that’s kind of the lasting memory we’ll have for a while until we get over it, I guess. But I told them I’m proud of the season they had, the body of work that they had as a whole. Use it as fuel and motivation for next year to improve on weaknesses and get better and hopefully get back to this point.”
GLENDALE (25-7) 000 000 0 — 0
WILLARD (31-7) 300 030 x — 6