HURRICANE — Hurricane was without its coach and dug itself an early hole Tuesday in the Mountain State Athletic Conference championship game against Huntington. The Redskins, however, proved themselves worthy of their No. 1 ranking in the latest Charleston Daily Mail prep baseball poll, rallying to beat the Highlanders 4-2 to claim the conference championship.
Hurricane (19-5) was without the services of coach Brian Sutphin, who was serving the second game of a three-game suspension for being ejected from a weekend game in Kentucky. The Redskins did not let that change the game plan, and senior pitcher Austin Hensley saw to it that team would have a chance to knock off No. 9 Huntington.
The Highlanders (16-9) opened the scoring in the top of the first. Centerfielder Andrew Zban doubled and later scored on a Ben Fulks single.
“That’s been my struggle this year — coming out in the first inning,” Hensley said. “I had a great defense behind me tonight. They made some plays and my two-seam (fastball) was running. If I get them inside then bust them away that’s the plan.”
Hensley settled down after a rough first frame, striking out the side in the second inning and holding the Highlanders off the scoreboard long enough for the Redskins to answer. The Redskins’ senior finished the game with six strikeouts and did not walk a batter until the seventh inning.
“He relaxed,” Hurricane assistant Billy Biggs, serving in place of Sutphin, said. “Austin is a huge competitor. It was almost to where he did not want certain guys in that lineup to beat him, so that competitive spirit came out and he went right after them. I can’t say enough good things about Austin Hensley. That’s the Austin Hensley we know can pitch every time he goes out.”
Hurricane’s J.T. Rogoszewski started a two-out rally in the fourth with a double, followed by an intentional walk to catcher Tate Brock. Alex Estep made Huntington pay for that decision with a liner down the third base line that brought both runners in to score and advanced to third on an error in left field. Brandon Pauley doubled to score Estep and put the Redskins ahead 3-1 after four innings.
Hurricane added another run in the fifth. Alex Dunham’s line drive was misplayed in the outfield, allowing the Redskins’ right fielder to advance to third. Hensley would later single to drive Dunham in and increase the Hurricane lead to 4-1.
“I think we were trying to do more than we can do instead of just relaxing and having good at-bats,” Biggs said. “The majority of our guys started to recognize fastball earlier in fastball counts.”
Huntington chipped away at the lead in its half of the sixth. Zban doubled and later scored on a Joey Munday single, but a lineout double play ended the Highlanders’ threat. The visitors threatened again in the seventh. Stephen Holland opened the inning with a single and advanced to second when Huntington pitcher Kris VanCamp walked to set up a two-on, none out situation.
Hensley was able to pick Holland off at second, however, and when Hurricane shortstop Trey Dawson applied the tag it effectively ended the Huntington threat. Two ground ball outs later, the Redskins had another trophy to add to their collection.
“That was just me and Trey,” Hensley said of the pickoff play. “We see it if they’re jumping early. We go back to Little League, since 7 or 8 years old we’ve been playing together. So we know each other.”
For the Highlanders, VanCamp struck out four and walked two in taking the loss.
“In the first couple innings he was keeping the ball low, keeping it down in the zone,” Huntington coach Danny Harbert said of VanCamp. “He was mixing pitches well. He had his slider working pretty well. When they started getting some nice base hits off him he started getting up a little bit in the zone and they started teeing off a little bit. I was still really happy with his performance.”
At the plate, Zban finished 2 for 3 with a pair of doubles and Munday went 2 for 3 with an RBI.
For Hurricane, five different players recorded hits with the doubles by Estep and Pauley providing the big blows in the fourth.
“They swing the bats well and are tough one through nine,” Harbert said of Hurricane. “That’s why they’re No. 1 in the state.”
And after Tuesday, No. 1 in the MSAC.
Contact sportswriter Tom Bragg at email@example.com or 304-348-4871. Follow him on Twitter @TomBraggSports.