Challengers blow out defending state champion St. Mary’s

Challengers blow out defending state champion St. Mary’s

What a difference a year makes. Not to mention a roster.

Roughly 11 months ago, St. Mary’s eked out 3-1 and 1-0 wins over Cascade Christian at the end of the 2017 regular season — an exciting, well-played precurser to the Crusaders’ eventual Class 3A state championship.

On Tuesday, the crosstown rivals couldn’t come close to recreating the same level of drama, as Cascade Christian took advantage of four extra-base hits, an assortment of St. Mary’s errors and a gem by starting pitcher Kyle Reece to turn the tables and trounce a much younger iteration of the Crusaders 11-0 in five innings.

Last season, Cascade Christian needed peak performances across the board just to challenge St. Mary’s, but Tuesday, against a much greener Crusaders team made up only of underclassmen (seven sophomores, four freshmen), Challengers coach David Martin found himself delivering a completely different kind of pregame speech.

“That’s the hard thing, talking to them about staying focused, accomplishing the goals that they have set before them and taking every at-bat as if it’s the final at-bat of the season,” he said. “And they’ve done a great job of doing that.”

Especially Reece.

Relying mostly a fastball, usually spotted low and away, the senior righty struck out nine of the 17 batters he faced, gave up two hits and only once allowed a baserunner beyond first base — only after a failed attempt at a diving catch in right with two outs in the fourth led to an oops-double by Cobey Aldrich.

The closest thing to pressure Reece faced came in the bottom of the first after he plunked St. Mary’s No. 2 hitter John Beattie. Challengers’ senior catcher Gunnar Thompson wiped away that mistake two pitches later by throwing out Beattie at second, and after Aldrich followed with a single Thompson gunned down him as well by two steps to end the inning.

Reece, who needed only 59 pitches to improve to 3-2, said he was aiming for an efficient performance.

“My mental approach was to really stay consistent with my spots and not try to overthrow,” he said. “Just throw strikes, make them beat me. I just didn’t want to beat myself and throw balls and bean people.”

Reece only needed to throw a “couple” change-ups and curves to pull that off, determining early on that few in the St. Mary’s lineup could cope with a fastball that tops out in the high 70s. In a dominant performance, he struck out two batters per inning from the second inning on, including the last two to clinch for the Challengers (7-6, 5-0 Southern Cascade) their sixth consecutive victory.

“I was mostly just sticking with my fastball today because they weren’t really proving that they could keep up with it,” he said.

“(Reece) looks good every time he steps on the mound,” Martin said. “Today, he was feeling a little under the weather so that’s probably the reason why he was struggled a little at first. But he’s a dominating pitcher and he knows what he’s doing.”

Cascade Christian gave Reece all the run support he would need in the top of the third, when an RBI double to left-center by Joel McLemore sparked a five-run inning that included two more doubles by Declan Payne and Davis Federico and a two-run single by freshman Sam Martin. In a play that summed up the day for St. Mary’s and its starting pitcher, sophomore Brady Eiler, Payne, after chopping a two-base hit down the third-base line, high-tailed it to third when the relay throw went sailing into right, then scored easily when the ensuing relay thrown inexplicably went to a cutoff man standing near second base.

“Actually, the real key was trying not to score too many runs because they wanted to do the same thing that (St. Mary’s) did to us two years ago, and that was hang 18 (runs) and steal and squeeze and all that stuff,” David Martin said. “That’s the key, reminding them that’s not the team that did that to us, that’s not the coach that did that to us.”

Indeeed, less than a year after claiming the program’s first state title in 35 years under coach Sean Gallagher, the Crusaders (3-7, 2-4) are suddenly faced with rebuilding under new head coach Darien Hardaway. St. Mary’s 17-player roster last year included seven seniors and three juniors. Then Gallagher took a job to coach at Davis and Elkins College and Hardaway, who hails from Georgia and played at Division I ball at Alcorn State, was combing the halls of St. Mary’s for players after only eight signed up to play. He managed to find three who had never played baseball before, avoiding the prospect of forfeiting the season.

“This year is the foundation year as far as instilling all the philosophies and just teaching them the game of baseball,” Hardaway said. “They kind of lack experience and, as you can see, it’s a very young team. We’re just trying to take it game by game, but we’re still going stay aggressive no matter what because they need to keep their mindset aggressive. We’re not going to play down, we’re always going to play up.”

Cascade Christian 005 42 — 11 8 0

St. Mary’s 000 00 — 0 2 5

Reece and Thompson; Eiler, Covington (4) and Aldrich. W — Reece (3-2). L — Eiler (0-4). 2B — CC: McLemore, Payne, Federico; SM: Aldrich. 3B — CC: Thompson.

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