Facing the state’s top-ranked team in Class 5 on Tuesday in Carthage and perhaps one of the best players in southwest Missouri in junior Drew Bridges, Willard High School senior Michael Pfeifer listened to the scouting report and took a very focused approach with him to the plate.
Pfeifer had learned from his coaching staff that Bridges struggles at times to throw his breaking pitches for strikes, so Pfeifer went to the plate looking for fastballs to hit.
Willard jumped to an early lead thanks to Pfeifer’s two-run home run in the first inning off Bridges and senior Justin Atchison continued his pitching dominance in a 6-1 Central Ozark Conference win over Carthage.
“We knew he couldn’t control his breaking stuff very well so we knew if we could sit on the fastball we would eventually get the pitch we wanted,” Pfeifer said.
“With two strikes he pounded fastballs and I late-timed one and hit it the other way and it got out of here.”
It was the first loss of the season for Carthage (17-1, 5-1) as Willard (17-5, 6-1) won its 10th consecutive game and clinched the COC Large Division title. It is Willard’s first COC title in baseball since it earned a share of the crown in 2001.
“Nobody believed that we could win the COC except for the guys on this team,” Willard junior Nik Taylor said. “Winning this is a big accomplishment.”
Carthage scored its only run off Atchison in the top of the third inning, which cut the lead to 2-1, but senior Chanse Quinlin regained momentum when he smashed a solo home run in the bottom half for a 3-1 Willard lead.
Carthage was able to put runners in scoring position against Atchison in the first, second, third, fourth and sixth innings, but Atchison gave up just one run over seven innings of work.
“My mindset was to attack them, but to not let Bridges beat us,” Atchison said. “He’s by far and away the best player in the area and definitely one of the best in the state. I made really good pitches and they just found ways to hit it.
“I just had to bear down even more and get the job done and I think it’s that closer mentality that really helps in those situations.”
Willard stretched the lead to 4-1 after an RBI single by Taylor in the home half of the fourth inning.
Presley started off the sixth inning just like he started the game with a single and a steal of second base, later scoring on a single from junior Luke Latham.
“I felt like I set the table in most of my at bats today,” Presley said. “I saw a lot of pitches and I got on base and put my self in position to score.”
Willard’s final run came with the bases loaded when Quinlin broke for home just as Bridges started his windup and the errant pitch to the plate allowed Quinlin to score, making it 6-1.
“Winning the COC Large is great, but hopefully this isn’t the highlight of our season,” Willard coach Scott McKee said.
“We need to keep getting better because we’ve still some other big games left to play and we’re really excited about the opportunity.”