CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — How sweet it is.
The Eastern baseball team secured the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance in five years Monday night following a 7-4 victory over seventh-seeded Belpre in a Division IV district championship contest at V.A. Memorial Stadium in Ross County.
The fourth-seeded Eagles (17-9) trailed 1-0 after a half-inning of play, but the hosts countered with five consecutive scores in four of the next frames while securing a comfortable 5-1 advantage through five complete.
The Golden Eagles (9-17) made one final push to get back in the game after plating a trio of two-out runs during the top of the sixth — which did cut the lead down to 5-4.
EHS, however, answered the bell by scoring half of its four earned runs in the home half of the sixth, which extended the cushion out to 7-4 headed into the finale.
BHS mustered a one-out hit from Cole Knotts in the top of the seventh, but he was ultimately stranded at second base as reliever Cameron Richmond struck out a batter and induced a pop up to right-fielder Owen Arix to wrap up the three-run outcome.
With the win, the Eagles captured the program’s ninth district championship in school history — including the first since the 2011 campaign. Eastern also completed a three-game sweep of the Golden Eagles after earning 10-0 and 13-3 wins in the regular season.
Monday night’s victory also marked the sixth district championship for head coach Brian Bowen in his 16 years at the helm. His other four regional appearances came in 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2008.
Afterwards Bowen was happy to see his program back in the regional tournament. More importantly, the venerable mentor was pleased with how his kids once again put together seven strong innings of baseball to earn something they desperately wanted.
“It’s exciting for us as a program and I’m glad that the kids will get to have this experience. It’s a memory that these guys will have with them for the rest of their lives,” Bowen said. “To win the way we did today was great. We were really good defensively, got some solid innings out of Austin on the mound and we took advantage of some situations while we were at the plate. It was another complete effort from everyone on the team, and that is what makes this one so special.”
Eastern advances to the Springfield regional tournament on Thursday, May 26, at Carlton Davidson Stadium, where the Eagles will face the winner of the D-4 Centerville district tournament at 2 p.m.
The Green and Gold finished the regular season in fourth place with an 11-5 mark in the Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division standings. But, as Bowen noted, having all four Division IV district final representatives and Wahama already sitting in the West Virginia regional tournament makes a strong case for being tournament tested.
“Hat’s off to Belpre on getting to this point, and really hat’s off to the TVC Hocking for having four teams in this district final,” Bowen said. “It’s a great small-school conference that really prepares you for the postseason, and the depth of the league makes it really hard to judge how good your team is during the course of the regular season. It’s a battle day-in and day-out, but that grind also helped us get where we are today.”
The Golden Eagles struck first as Jacob Davis singled with one out in the top of the first, then Kole Counts tripled to left-center as Davis came around to score for the early 1-0 advantage.
Tavian Miller followed with a flyout to right-fielder Owen Arix, who relayed a strike to first baseman Dillon Swatzel. Swatzel then gunned the ball home to catcher Cam Richmond, who applied a successful double play tag to Counts — who tried to score from third on the flyout.
Belpre managed only one hit and three baserunners over its next four scoreless innings at the plate, and that was when Eastern started taking control.
Austin Coleman started the home half of the first by reaching on an infield error, then stole second and advanced to third on a flyout by John Little — giving EHS a runner on third with one out.
Richmond was hit by a pitch in the next at-bat to put runners on the corners, then the hosts executed a double steal to perfection as Richmond advanced to second as Coleman beat the relay throw back to the plate for a one-all contest.
Jessie Morris advanced Richmond to third on a ground out, then the Eagles caught another break as a Josh Brewer hit a weak dribbler to BHS starter Jesse Collins.
Instead of getting the final out of the inning at first base, Collins threw home to prevent Richmond from scoring — only the ball sailed over the catcher to the backstop. Richmond ended up scoring the eventual game-winning run standing up, making it a 2-1 contest after one complete.
Arix started things in the second with a one-out single and advanced to second on a passed ball. Then with two outs, Little legged out an infield single as the Belpre catcher sprinted up first base line for a play on the ball.
With nobody stationed at home plate, Arix stayed in stride rounding third and eventually scored for a 3-1 advantage after two full frames.
Coleman started the fourth with a single and later scored on a sacrifice fly to center by Richmond for a 4-1 edge, then Arix singled home Brewer with two outs in the fifth for a 5-1 cushion.
The Golden Eagles found some new life in the top of the sixth as EHS starter Austin Coleman started wearing down after getting consecutive outs to start the frame.
Tavian Miller was hit by a pitch, then Bailey Sprague and Collins received back-to-back walks to load the bases with two away.
Isaac Tullius cleared the bases with a triple to right field, allowing the Orange and Black to close to within a run at 5-4.
Eastern, however, responded with four hits and two scores in the home half of the sixth — which ultimately ended up icing the outcome.
Coleman walked to the start the frame, then stole second and advanced to third on an infield hit by Little — who eventually advanced to second on the play because no BHS defender was at the bag.
Richmond followed with an RBI single to center that plated Coleman for a 6-4 advantage. Little later scored on a wild pitch to wrap up the three-run triumph.
The Eagles outhit Belpre by a 9-5 overall margin and committed only one of the three errors in the contest. The Green and Gold stranded nine runners on base, while the guests left only five on the bags.
Coleman was the winning pitcher of record after allowing four earned runs, four hits and four walks over 5.2 innings of while striking out eight. Richmond also allowed one hit and fanned three in 1.1 innings of relief.
Collins suffered the setback for BHS after allowing three runs (one earned), two hits and a walk over 1.2 innings while striking out one. Miller worked 4.1 innings of relief, allowing four earned runs, seven hits and five walks while fanning four.
Brewer led the Eagles with three hits, followed by Little and Arix with two safeties apiece. Coleman and Richmond also added a hit each to the winning cause.
Coleman scored a team-high three runs, with Little, Richmond, Brewer and Arix also scoring once apiece. Little, Richmond and Arix also knocked in a RBI each for Eastern.
Tullius paced Belpre with two hits and three RBIs, while Davis, Counts and Knotts also had a hit apiece for the guests. Counts also knocked in a run, while Davis, Miller, Sprague and Collins each scored once in the setback.
Eastern now has over a week to prepare for the regional tournament. It’s a long layoff, but Bowen is confident that his troops will be focused on the next task at hand.
“We’ve learned a lot of lessons throughout the season about what it takes to be successful, but these guys have pretty much got things figured out now,” Bowen said. “Now it’s all about putting in the hard work and wanting it. I know the guys are looking forward to playing in regionals next week, so I don’t think it will be too hard to get these guys ready over the course of the next week. Hopefully we still have some of our better baseball left in us.”
Waterford defeated Trimble by a 5-2 count in the first D-4 district championship game at V.A. Memorial Stadium on Monday night. The Wildcats advance to the Lancaster regional and will face the winner of the Lancaster 1 district tournament at 5 p.m. Thursday, May 26, at Beavers Field.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.