WELLSBURG - One of the most improbable West Virginia Class AAA Region One, Section One, baseball tournaments played in recent memory finally had a probable ending after all.
But it was far from easy.
The top-seeded team, John Marshall, was dropped into the losers' bracket at the outset of the week before battling back to win three straight games, including Saturday's 6-4 victory against Wheeling Park in the tournament championship game played on the Brooke High School diamond.
PHOTO BY RICK THORP
The John Marshall baseball team surrounds winning pitcher Josh McKown after the final out was recorded Saturday at Brooke High School. The Monarchs did it the hard way, but won the Region I, Section I championship.
Once again it was Aaron Fonner providing the game-winning fireworks in what has been an all too familiar scenario for first-year Patriots coach Mike McLeod.
Fonner got the pitch he was looking for in the bottom of the third inning. It was fast and up in the strike zone, allowing him to jump all over it and crash a three-run homer well over the 320-foot sign down the left-field line. Fonner's third home run and third game-deciding blast against Park put the Monarchs in front 5-0, leaving the Patriots too big of a hole to escape.
''Aaron's been real good for us all year,'' said veteran John Marshall mentor Bob Montgomery after collecting his 27th sectional baseball championship trophy in his 38th. It was also the 799th victory of his coaching career, giving Montgomery an opportunity to reach the 800 plateau Tuesday, May 22, when the Monarchs play host to University in the Region One semfinals.
''That was a lot of pressure on our guys having to come back three nights in a row, including Friday when we won in the bottom of the seventh. What is most satisfying to me is that we had a lot of kids contribute,'' Montgomery pointed out.
''Aaron Fonner with the big home run and Todd Schmidt did a great job of stemming the tide in the fifth inning.''
For the second time this week, Schmidt was brought in from center field to pitch and get John Marshall out of a big jam. With starter Josh McKown again having control issues, Schmidt replaced him with the bases loaded and nobody out with the Monarchs on top 5-2.
The Patriots scored one run on an attempted force play as the throw to home plate was too late to nip Ethan Jacobs, who had opened the inning with a double on a hard shot past third.
After Jacobs' two-base hit, McKown plunked Andrew Kowalo in the back and walked Zach Drake. Still with nobody out and one run in, Schmidt got J.R. Pyle on a sacrifice fly when Fonner made a sparkling catch running toward the right-field foul line making it a 5-4 game. Julian Figaretti then took a called third strike and Grove Calvert walked to re-load the bases before Schmidt also caught Dylan Janeczko looking.
McKown returned to the mound in the sixth inning just as he did earlier in the week during a 10-2 loss the Patriots. This time, however, the Monarchs righty put the side down in order. He struggled again somewhat with one out in the seventh, issuing walks to Kyler Fitzpatrick and Pyle. However, he got a big assist from his catcher when Zach Winland went back to the screen and made a nice catch of Figaretti's pop foul for the second out.
McKown then ignited the Monarchs' victory celebration with a strikeout of Calvert, whiff No 6 of the game to go with a half-dozen walks.
''I am one of the few guys that will bring a starting pitcher back to the mound after talking him out,'' Montgomery noted. ''We've done that several times this season.''
Montgomery explained that McKown is still the guy he wants with the ball at the end of games despite his high pitch count and tendency to walk a lot of batters.
Neither team managed many hits. In fact, John Marshall collected just two during the first three innings. both were bombs that helped the Monarchs break out to their early lead.
Park sophomore lefty Trevor Stewart walked Winland and Fonner to start the bottom of the second. With two outs, Shane Wellman socked a long two-run double with the ball hitting at the base of the fence in left field.
In the third inning both Jake Lucas and Chris Minder reached on infield errors. Stewart retired the next two Monarchs before Fonner stepped to the plate and unloaded his home run with two mates aboard.
The John Marshall senior was all smiles when asked his about success against the Patriots throughout the year.
''This is a fun rivalry,'' the still beaming Fonner said. ''We always look forward to playing Park and having an opportunity to beat them. This just feeels great. I was looking for a pitch up and I got one.''
McLeod had another view of the damage that Fonner has done to his team all year.
''Hats off to him for hitting the ball, but we've can't throw pitches to him up in the zone like that,'' McLeod said. ''I don't care if it is Fonner or the No. 8 hitter. Our No. 9 hitter hit one out (Friday). Guys are in that spot in the lineup for a reason.''
John Marshall had only three more hits the rest of the way, two of which came in the bottom of the sixth when they scored an insurance run. An error started that rally with the RBI coming on a single by Lucas.
Wheeling Park's other two runs came in the fourth inning in kind of a bizarre manner. The Patriots loaded the bases on Fitzpatrick's single, a hit batsman and a single by Justice Jackson. Janeczko' sacrifce fly scored the first run. With two out McKown then delivered a wild pitch that saw Figaretti score. Jackson tried to follow him around the bases but was tagged out by Winland just in front of the plate.
Unfortunately for Jackson, he quickly bounced up and bumped the Monarchs catcher resulting in an automatic ejection by the home plate umpire.
McLeod was saddened by the loss that ended Park's dreams of making it to the regional in this first season.
''Our kids played hard and their kids played hard,'' McLeod said. ''I feel for our four seniors who won't get another chance, but this was a great group of kids to be around.
''I had a good time coaching them. It was there for us but we let it slip away. We tip our hats to John Marhsall. They have a great program and a great coach. We'll be back.
''We only lose four seniors and have a ton of kids coming back. I'm excited because I believe we are going to be good.''
Montgomery also paid tribute to the Patriots program.
''Wheeling Park is a terrific high school. Both of our schools had great success with their athletic teams. When you play Park, you know you are going to get their best all the time,'' Montgomery said.