By Cody Thorn
Photos courtesy of Ron and Lisa Rigdon, Cheap Seats Photo
OZARK — Two decades after winning its first state championship on the diamond, Platte County secured title No. 2 on Saturday night.
The Pirates picked up a 6-1 win against Festus in the Class 5 title game - scoring five runs in the final two innings - to pull away in the final state title game for the week at U.S. Baseball Park.
Platte County won the 2002 Class 3A title by a more convincing 19-1 advantage against St. Mary’s that year. This year’s title was a lot closer, as it was a 1-0 game going into the sixth inning before the Pirates pulled away late.
“The last four weeks have just been awesome since the district championship, you know?” Platte County coach John Sipes said. “Where we came out hot and then the other team (Smithville) battled back and we found a way to win and then our quarterfinal game against Webb City. We got an early lead and they battled back.
"It hasn't been an easy road, but it's been a successful road and that's all that matters.”
The Pirates, ranked No. 4 in the final regular season poll by the Missouri High School Baseball Coaches Association, struck first with a run in the top of the fourth inning - an inning after stranding two and having a runner thrown out at third base.
Third baseman Nick Baker smacked a triple to center field and scored on catcher Jake Knudsen’s single to left field.
Festus, the home team on the scoreboard, then loaded the bases but came up empty in the bottom half of the frame.
Right fielder Jackson Gross opened up with a single and moved up when third baseman Conner McDonald reached on an error. Freshman left fielder Mason Schirmer, a Mizzou commit, singled to load the bases.
The Pirates went to the bullpen and brought in Brayden Carter, who got a double play on a fly ball. Center fielder Devin Wassman caught the fly ball and his strike home got Gross, who was to have been the tying run.
Carter, a lefty that closed out the semifinal game, worked around Festus first baseman Brayden Montgomery reaching on an error in the bottom of the fifth to keep the 1-0 lead intact.
Platte County had four of the first five batters in the sixth reach, but a ground ball and a fielder’s choice erased two of them.
Designated hitter Elias Nelson and Knudsen had back-to-back two-out walks before left fielder Jordan Hedrick’s two-run opposite field single - in his only at-bat - expanded the lead to 3-0.
Platte County added an insurance run in the top of the seventh. The first three batters had singles - which led to a pitching change - but the Tigers threw another runner out trying to steal second base for the second straight inning.
First baseman Dylan Robertson welcomed pitcher Connor Hulsey into the game with a pop-up that fell between center field and shortstop to load the bases.
Baker added a sac fly to bring home another run, making it 4-0.
“I think the big thing was for us to keep going,” said Baker, who was 1-for-3 with a pair of runs scored. “Just everybody keep hitting and not lose confidence in themselves.
"Just keep the energy, keep going and going. So whenever it gets up, we can do what we just did.”
The big break for the Pirates came when Nelson hit a grounder back to the mound. Instead of throwing to first for the final out of the inning, the throw went to third and out of reach of the third baseman.
The ball rolled into deep foul territory and two runners scored, boosting the Pirates’ lead to 6-0.
Festus, which had won 11 in a row heading into the title game, got on the board in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Schirmer singled and catcher Tyler Bizzle reached on an error, which set up a run-scoring single by pinch hitter Kaleb Kennedy. The fly ball to right field was trapped and Festus had two runners on at second base.
That turned into an out at first base, but Schirmer scored on the play.
Sawyer Allen, who started the game and went 1 1/3 innings, came in to close the game for the Pirates. He also started Friday’s semifinal game against Ft. Zumwalt East, but was pulled after 29 pitches.
Two unsung heroes for the Pirates were Carter - who pitched 3 2/3 innings in relief and gave up only one run - and Knudsen. In the two games this week, the catcher and No. 7 hitter was a combined 3-for-6 with five RBIs.
“He came up huge and he had probably the worst week of batting practice coming down here that he's ever had,” Sipes said of Knudsen. “I said work on keeping it simple, keep it simple. Get your foot down and let the hands do the work and he did.
"He came up clutch.”
Class 5 Third Place
Willard 7, Ft. Zumwalt East 3
The defending state champions overcame an early deficit to pick up a win in the third-place game on Saturday afternoon.
The Tigers scored four runs in the third inning, keyed by a two-run single by catcher Kyden McMain, who was 2-for-4 at the plate.
The Lions (23-11) pulled within a run, 4-3, after scoring on an error and a wild pitch in the top of the fifth.
The Tigers (32-8) answered with a trio of runs - two on a single by center fielder Kyle Beeman and then an RBI single by third baseman Cooper Wilken. That was the final run of the game for the team ranked No. 1 headed into the state playoffs.
McMain, Beeman and designated hitter Owen Bushnell all had two hits for the Tigers, who had brought home trophies the past three full years; third (2022), first (2021) and third (2019).
Jared Miles, a senior right-hander, picked up the win for Willard. He gave up one run on four hits in 4 1/3 innings.
Miles struck out six and was the first of three seniors who left the game for a replacement and exited with hugs from every teammate.
Third baseman Eric Williams and catcher Jackson Penn both had two hits for Ft. Zumwalt East. Williams had the lone RBI for the Lions, who were making their debut in the state final four.