The Hiland Hawks have proven over and over that the thing they do best is find a way to win. They did it again on Thursday, June 1 with a thrilling 2-1, eight-inning walk-off win to beat Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy to advance to Saturday’s Div. III final against number-two Warren Champion.
The Hawks overcame an early 1-0 deficit, fighting back to tie the game in the bottom of the fourth. Andy Miller led off the inning with a single and advanced to second on a balk. Braden Mast lined a one-out shot off of CHCA starter Griffan Smith, which settled in the grass between shortstop and the mound, but Andy Miller couldn’t advance. Michael Miller then walked to load the bases, and senior Derek Miller drove a sacrifice fly to right to tie the game at one.
Meanwhile, Mast was embroiled in a battle with the lefty Smith in a pitching duel that seemed to magnify every play in the game. Both teams would squander opportunities throughout a contest in which seemed destined to come down to the wire.
“We expected a hard-nosed team and a tough ballgame,” Eagles head coach Tony Schulz said. “We figured it was going to be decided by a play here and a play there, and that’s exactly what happened. Unfortunately we just came out on the wrong side of it.”
They would be on the right side of it in the top of the third when Mast walked the eight-hole Griffin Hodges leading off the inning, which was followed by Adam Rakestraw’s line single to put two on with nobody out. Leadoff man Griffin Hughes sacrificed the runners to second and third, and Mast was in a pickle. After a soft comebacker to the mound gave hopes of escape, things went awry when catcher Bryan Yoder’s pickoff attempt to get Rakestraw at second was low and the ball careened just far enough away on shortstop Chris Kline’s body block that Hodges scrambled home for a 1-0 Eagles lead.
“You never want to throw down with two outs, especially with a strike on the batter,” Hiland’s Tom Gibson said. “You should go after the hitter in that situation, and we had first base open, and we ended up getting him out.”
Yoder later redeemed himself in the sixth with the game knotted at one. Mast walked cleanup hitter Clay Brock to lead off the inning. Brock was replaced by pinch runner Carson Miller, who was erased immediately when Blake Sheffer whiffed on a bunt attempt at a Mast curveball and Miller strayed too far off the bag while anticipating contact. The ever-ready Yoder pumped one to Cam Miller at first, who applied the tag, and Mast then retired the side in order.
The play was one of many that saw the contest ebb and flow toward both benches with neither team being able to take advantage. While Smith escaped a potential disaster in the first when Hiland put two on with nobody out, it was Mast who seemed to be the Houdini of the day.
“Braden hung tough in some sticky situations today,” Gibson said. “He did an outstanding job. He kept them off balance, and they shouldn’t have scored a single run. Not only was it physically an outstanding performance, but mentally it was too for being able to zero in and make it happen. That’s what pitching is about, and he’s proved all year he can do it.”
Mast would throw a season-high 109 pitches in the 80-degree heat, and Gibson appreciated the gutsy effort by his senior as he got the Hawks through the seventh. “We could see he was tiring, but we wanted to get him through seven. We have a lot of confidence in Braden because he’s got the off-speed curveball that’s been devastating to a lot of hitters. They just can’t square it up. He’s done it all year for us. He’s had an outstanding senior season.”
When Yoder entered the fray in the top of the eighth, grey clouds formed on the horizon of the Hiland season as the Eagles got their third leadoff walk of the day, which was immediately followed by a Brock single to get two on with no outs. But Yoder whiffed Sheffer and induced a grounder to short for a nifty 6-4-3 double play, and the Hiland bench erupted with new life.
“Bryan made the right pitch,” Gibson said. “We wanted it at the knees to get a ground ball to get a double play. He got it; Chris (Kline) and Tyson (Gingerich) characteristically turned it. It was nice and smooth. It was awesome.”
With new life, Hiland got back to being Hiland.
After suffering at the hands of Smith throughout the day, Gingerich battled to steer a two-strike single to left to start the bottom of the eighth. When Yoder’s sacrifice bunt was fielded by Smith, his only play was at first, but the throw pulled Brock off the bag, and Hiland was back in business. But just as the Eagles struggled to get sacrifice bunts down on the day, the Hawks suffered the same fate when Ryan Hershberger fouled off a pair of attempts before grounding into a fielder’s choice with Gingerich being forced at third.
After Smith was replaced by sophomore righty Max Rippenger, Andy Miller delivered a liner to left-center to drive in pinch-runner Derek Burke, and bedlam ensued as the Hawks poured from the dugout. It was a tough pill to swallow for the Eagles and their seven seniors.
“Our pitching has been a strength for us all year, but you just have to tip your cap to Hiland,” Schulz said. “They’re a great team, and they’ve had a great season. We wish them the best of luck in their next game. Obviously I’m proud of our guys. We had a great season and a great tournament run.”
Gibson enjoyed seeing his squad do what they do, even if it did cause some strife.
“What an exciting game … too exciting for my blood pressure,” Gibson said. “But we came out on top, so it makes it worthwhile. The kids played great. We hung in there in tough situations and got out of them by making some good plays. We just wanted the chance to win the game late, and it happened for us, and we did it.”
As for the Hawks, it was win number 31 in a quest to repeat.
“Being at state last year and also going the Senior League World Series in 2015 has really helped us,” Mast said. “We’re used to playing on the big stage, so we may not have quite the amount of jitters some other teams do. So we can just go out and be free to play relaxed, and it helps us play better that way.”
The senior tossed his final game for the Hawks, going seven complete innings, surrendering just the one unearned run on five hits while striking out five and walking four. Yoder got a strikeout with a walk and a hit in his one inning of scoreless relief for the win. Smith took the hard-luck loss for the Eagles, also tossing seven innings with five hits and a pair of walks to go with eight strikeouts while surrendering one earned run.
Andy Miller had a huge day at the plate for Hiland as his two singles played a role in both runs with him scoring their first and driving in the game-winner.
“It feels great, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates getting on base,” the sophomore said. “We’ll enjoy this one tonight and tomorrow get back at it and get ready for the next game.”
Mast also had a pair of hits for the Hawks while the Eagles were paced by Rakestraw’s three hits, including a double.
Number-one Hiland (31-0) will face number-two Warren Champion (26-3) at 10 a.m. on Saturday in a battle between the top-two ranked teams in the state in the Div. III championship game.