By Rick Ryan
All that talk about mental toughness and handling adversity all paid off for Riverside on Friday afternoon.
Trevor Smith slapped a two-out single up the middle in the bottom of the seventh inning to score Brandon Hancock, giving the Warriors a 3-2 comeback victory against Wheeling Park in the Class AAA state tournament semifinals at Power Park.
“This has been it the whole second half of the season,’’ said Riverside senior pitcher Cameron Norris, who earned the win with a four-hitter and 10 strikeouts.
“The whole postseason has been like this — the close games. It’s something we’re doing this year we didn’t do last year. We’re pulling through in these one-run games. That’s what got us here.’’
The win creates an All-Kanawha Valley championship game at approximately 1 p.m. today when Riverside (20-12), appearing in its first state tournament, takes on Hurricane (28-7). It’s the first-ever such finals matchup in the AAA division, which began in 1976, and is the first All-Valley title pairing in any class since Sissonville beat Winfield for the 1996 AA crown.
The Warriors didn’t get there without some problems, however, as they trailed 1-0 until plating two runs in the bottom of the sixth. That lead didn’t stand more than a few minutes, though, as Park (20-7), playing in its first state tournament in 25 years, caught back up.
Nathan Hardman, the Patriots’ No. 9 hitter, stroked a clean single off Norris with two outs, scoring pinch runner Collin Hlad from third to extend the game, tied at 2.
But the Warriors, exercising that new culture of resiliency, didn’t let that deflate them very long.
Park pitcher Michael Grove (5-2) fanned the first two Riverside batters in the bottom of the seventh, and it looked like the first extra-inning game of the weekend state tournament. However, No. 9 hitter Hancock singled just inside the right-field line and Derik Chestnut doubled on the first pitch he saw to put runners at second and third.
Smith, the team’s top hitter at .429 coming into the game, then bounced a Grove offering up the middle and Hancock came racing home as the Warriors’ portion of a large crowd went into an uproar.
“I knew I just had to get my front foot down,’’ said Smith, who had previously gone 0 for 2 with a walk against Grove, “and get out in front and get a hit and get us a win.
“I was real confident in myself. It’s all about mentality. Coach [Patrick Vogelsang] always tells us that. Just keep a good mentality.’’
With the outcome, Riverside matched a school record with its 20th win and is now 4-0 in one-run games this postseason. The Warriors are also riding along with just their sixth winning record since the program began in 2000.
The power of positive thinking?
“It’s just one pitch at a time,’’ said Vogelsang, who took over as head coach three games into the season when Trey Barcus stepped down. “That’s our approach. Win this pitch, win this inning, and then we’ll win the game.
“There are about a good dozen plays you can point to that changed this game. So that’s why you have to focus on one play at a time. Because you don’t know which play is going to change that game.’’
Norris (9-1) and Grove appeared to be settling into a pitchers duel when the Patriots eked out a run in the top of the third.
Hardman reached on a fielder’s choice, moved to second on a wild pitch, took third on a balk and scored on another Norris wild pitch.
That’s the way it stood until the home half of the sixth, though each side flashed some glove work to keep it that way.
In the bottom of the third, Riverside got runners to first and second with one out on singles by Hancock and Chestnut. Smith then bounced a ball deep into the hole at short that looked certain to load the bases or score a run. However, Park shortstop Daniel Baciak made a diving stab at the ball and flipped to Zane Hummel at third to cut down Hancock and help quell the threat.
Then it was Riverside’s turn.
Third baseman Hancock made a superb scoop of a grounder to close out the fifth. In the sixth, Norris knocked down a hot smash on the mound and center fielder Cameron Green turned in his second defensive gem of the game with a running catch to end the inning.
Riverside parlayed that momentum into two runs in the bottom of the sixth.
Smith walked, was sacrificed to second and went to third when Norris’ grounder to second took a funky hop and he reached on an error. Norris swiped second and Smith was then awarded home on a balk when Grove stepped off the pitcher’s rubber and made a fake throw to third and a fake throw to first, where there was no runner.
Norris, now at third, scored on Brady Wilkinson’s sacrifice fly to left, but it wasn’t pretty. Norris left the base early, stumbled back and retagged and slid in safely when the throw home got away.
“That’s been our M.O. all year,’’ Vogelsang said of the late rallies. “That’s what we’re about. That’s been our M.O. this whole playoff run, and that’s what we do. We’ll find a way to win.
“We’re gonna scrap, we’re gonna fight, we’re gonna claw, and we’re gonna do it for all seven innings.’’
Park coach Mike McLeod felt that Grove’s pitching effort (six hits, eight Ks, two walks) was just as solid as Norris’.
“Michael’s a warrior,’’ McLeod said. “He’s been there all year. But take nothing away from Riverside’s kid. He’s going to be a good college baseball player.
“Their kid [Smith] put a nice swipe on the ball. They had timely hits and we didn’t, so you tip your hat. You know we’re gonna fight, and it’s a hostile environment here, kind of like a home game for them. But I’m proud of our kids.’’
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.