What was a productive winning season quickly came to an end Thursday for the Watson Chapel Wildcats (20-9, 10-2) in the first round of the 5A state baseball tournament. The Wildcats lost to the Little Rock Christian Warriors (20-11, 10-4) by a final of 2-0 at Dupree Park in Jacksonville.
The Wildcats entered the match up as the two seed out of the 5A south, and the Warriors are the three seed from the 5A central. Both teams were evenly matched as far as ability, and that made for a competitive game.
A pitchers' duel developed between the Wildcats' Kaleb Hill and the Warriors' Jacob Wagner. Wagner picked up the win, going strong through six innings. Wagner only gave up one hit, while striking out five batters, and stranding 10 runners. Hill finished with 11 strikeouts, while allowing three hits; one of those hits would be the difference in the game's outcome.
The Wildcats got off to a nice start but weren't able to drive in a run after loading the bases in the bottom of the first.
In the top of the third, the Warriors strung together back-to-back hits for two of their three during the game. After MJ Loggins connected for a base hit, Trey Harris stepped up to make the game-settling play for Little Rock Christian. Harris sat on one and sent it over the left field wall for a two-run homer to give the Warriors the only runs they needed.
At that point, Chapel had plenty of time to make a rally, but Wagner settled in and made it difficult for the Wildcats to locate his pitches.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Wildcats were able to get Davion White and Aaron Frazier on base due to a couple of LR Christian errors. However, Wagner got them out of a tight spot once again as he shut down the side, stranding the two Chapel runners.
After giving up the homer, Hill responded by shutting down the Warriors, but Watson Chapel couldn't muster up enough offense to threaten the lead.
After Wagner threw a one-hitter through six innings, Warriors head coach Matt Lane decided to insert a closer in the bottom of the seventh: Bennett Shoptaw. With a new pitcher on the mound, Chapel had a chance to jump on top of him, but Shoptaw was solid.
Shoptaw immediately struck out the first batter he faced to apply more pressure on the Wildcats. Gionti Turner then connected on base hit to give Watson Chapel hope. He was followed by a base hit by Braelin Hence, but Turner was thrown out at second on a fielder's choice. With Hence on first, Jakobi Jackson stepped to the plate, and although he battled Shoptaw, he ultimately grounded out, making the final play of the season for Chapel.
"It's the same story as last Friday night," Cope said. "If you don't hit the ball you don't score. Pitching and defense can play as good as you want, and you can play error-free, but if you don't hit the baseball, man, that's how it goes. It's on me, I didn't have us ready to play in the last couple games, and I told the guys it's my fault. I take full responsibility, and I can't fault their effort because they played hard. We make one pitch, the kid hits a homerun, and we weren't able to score."
For the seven Watson Chapel seniors, this was their last ride, but according to Cope, it was worthwhile. They're a group of guys that he sees being successful in future endeavors.
"They've been a good group, they really have," Cope said. "They've done things the right way by leading the program and representing the school. [That's] how it's suppose to be done. I have no doubts that they'll be successful in life, each and every one of them. This is baseball, it's life, and that's why it's such a great sport. You move on and the sun will come up."