LANCASTER – Licking Valley was only a few feet away from a third consecutive 2-1 win Thursday. But the law of averages finally caught up with the Panthers at Beavers Field.
This time, Valley ended up on the short end of that score. Bishop Watterson threw out the potential winning run at the plate in the fifth inning, then pushed across the game-winner in the eighth for a 2-1 Division II district championship victory. The fourth-seeded Eagles (22-8) earned their first regional berth since 2007 while denying the 10th-seeded Panthers (18-11) their first since 2003.
With things tied 1-1 in the fifth, Cody Dennis drew a one-out walk. After Jacob Dennis walked with two outs, Drew Morrison lashed a single to left. But left fielder Jack Haley delivered a one-hop throw to catcher Christian Kroger, who tagged out a leaping Cody Dennis and held on.
“All year, we’ve tried to put pressure on the defense, and you have to tip your hat to Watterson,” said Valley coach Adam Arcuri. “He came up throwing, and not only did the catcher make a nice catch, he made a good tag.
“We hit some balls hard today, but they didn’t have eyes and we couldn’t find holes. We had opportunities to get that potential winning run in, and we couldn’t capitalize.”
The Panthers left eight on base, including runners in scoring position five times. That included Damon Hupp in the fourth, after he had doubled, and Morrison in the eighth, after he had been hit by a pitch and Logan Palmer walked. Meanwhile, the Eagles finally broke through in the eighth against Jacob Dennis, who effectively scattered seven hits.
Teddy Walter beat out a perfect bunt single up the first base line, and he was balked to second. With one out, cleanup hitter Jacob Bolton slammed a double well over the left fielder’s head for the game-winner. Dennis struck out three and walked two.
“Jake pitched his butt off,” Arcuri said. “He just left a changeup up there.”
As they did in Tuesday’s semifinal win, the Panthers pounced early. Tyler Nethers led off the game with a walk, went to second on a wild pitch and was bunted to third by Cody Dennis. After Colt Caughenbaugh walked, Jacob Dennis ripped an RBI single to right. But Valley never could dent the plate again, and Watterson tied it by bunching three singles in the fourth.
“We needed to seize our opportunities a little better,” said Morrison, now headed to pitch at North Carolina-Charlotte. “It’s been a quick four years, and at least we got a step further. I remember coming in my freshman year, and the previous year, we won like three games. We won 15, and it kept going up and up.
“We helped make Licking Valley more of a baseball school. They even had a freshman team this year, and have gotten kids interested.”
Arcuri said the future looks bright.
“Obviously this was a step in the right direction, even though we wanted to go farther,” he said. “We’ll be back.”
For more photos and a video by Dave Weidig, go to NewarkAdvocate.com.