Will Holland was one pitch away from playing for a state championship. Or possibly seeing the end of a promising season.
In a game that featured stellar pitching on both sides, Trinity took a 2-1 lead over W.S. Neal into the seventh inning, only to watch as the first three Neal batters reached base. After recording a pair of outs, Holland stood face to face with one of the best hitters in the state. Brian Settle hit the first pitch into shallow center field, but a hard-charging Chas Mitchell made a sliding catch to preserve the one-run victory and send the Wildcats back to the Class 3A championship series.
“He had really been stroking the ball lately,” Holland said. “I think he went 5 for 5 in the first two games. Finally, we figured he couldn’t hit a changeup, so we started him with a changeup on the first pitch every time. He jumped on the changeup that last time, but Chas made a great play to end the game.”
Trinity (31-10) will face either Plainview or Mars Hill Bible in the championship best-of-three series. The first game will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at Paterson Field, with the second game set for 4 p.m. Friday at Riverwalk Stadium. A third game, if necessary, will immediately follow.
For W.S. Neal (30-2), the rally couldn’t have been scripted any better. The team that had refused to lose all season found itself trailing 2-1, but Taylor Elliott was hit with a pitch to start the inning and Miles Powell put down a perfectly executed bunt toward the left side of the infield for a single.
Leadoff hitter Christian Ponder was next and put down another bunt which was inches fair, then rolled into the chalkline, then rolled back into fair territory again, loading the bases with no outs for the heart of the Blue Eagle lineup, all seniors.
“After I hit the first guy, I knew I couldn’t let it get me down,” Holland said. “As soon as they got the bunt down, I started getting a little more nervous. I don’t know what told me, but I just knew we were going to get out of it. I knew I could do it. I’ve been in that position so many times. It didn’t really faze me.”
Jeremy Myers flied out to mid-range left field and W.S. Neal coach Coy Campbell held pinch runner Malcolm Hawthorn at third after watching left field Chris Hynniman field the ball on the run toward third base.
Damian Williams was next, popping up to Trace Johnston at third base, setting the stage for Settle.
“I don’t have an answer,” Trinity coach Ken Whittle said. “The odds of us getting out of that are not big. To find a way to get out of it is amazing. The kids didn’t quit, the kids didn’t think they couldn’t do it, and that’s a big deal, too. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit for handling the adversity and the pressure of the game.”
Settle’s flyout brought two contrasting emotions out as Trinity fans and players erupted in wild celebration while W.S. Neal players and fans stood in stunned silence, unable to believe that such a promising rally — and season — had come to an end.
“I couldn’t have drawn three better names out of a hat, if you told me that opportunity was coming,” Campbell said. “Give those guys credit over there (in the Trinity dugout), give their pitchers credit. I guess that’s why they’re the defending state champs. They made the plays. We had several opportunities the whole game.”
Up until that point, Neal had had the opportunities, pushing across a run on starter Tatum Dean in the second inning with three hits, but managing just one against Holland in the final 4 2/3 innings before the two bunt singles. They left two runners on base in both the third and fourth innings but could not push another run across.
“I guess Holland coming a little three-quarter (sidearm) there is a little different,” Campbell said. “They’ve got some good guys. Their pitchers do well. That’s why their ERA is what it is.”
Trinity had just a pair of hits against Neal starter Keith Bradley before coming up with two in the fifth. A leadoff single by Dean and a two-out single by Allen Wood tied the game and the Wildcats answered again in the sixth when Johnston singled and went to third on a hit-and-run single by Zach Walker.
“We came in and talked to each other and said we’ve got to do it this inning,” Walker said. “The first batter, Chas, strikes out, then Trace gets a hit. I’m like, ‘We’ve got this, I’m going to get a hit.’ Coach gives me the hit and run (signal) and I did my job and then Brock (Stevens) came up and did a huge job by getting the sac fly.”
Stevens would face Settle, the senior left hander who shut down Trinity in the first game 5-1. The Trinity senior worked the count full, fouled off a pitch, then lofted a fly to right centerfield. Powell caught the ball on the run but was angling toward right field, keeping him from making a good throw to the plate and allowing Johnston to score easily for a 2-1 lead.
It was all Holland would need, although there were some anxious moments in going through the senior-laden Eagle lineup. And while Campbell was obviously disappointed, he didn’t want the finish to take away from W.S. Neal’s remarkable season and its seven seniors that gave the program its first undefeated regular season.
“Without those guys and what they’ve done for our program, we wouldn’t be where we’re at now,” Campbell said. “Everybody in the state knows W.S. Neal. We’ll be back, too.”
This week, however, it is Trinity that is back, trying to put together the first back-to-back championship seasons at a program known for its baseball tradition.
“We’ve got to keep working,” Holland said. “We’re not there yet. We still have two more games.”