(DHI Media/ Reid Maus)
(DHI Media/ Reid Maus)

VAN WERT — There is few spectacles in sports that have the potential to be as emotionally raw as a walk off win. That goes double when the walk-off win is for something as monumental as say, the first league title in 35 years. That’s exactly what happened Thursday, as the Cougars beat Eldia 6-5 in extra innings to claim their first Western Buckeye League Title since 1984.

With Keaton Brown on second and two outs, Jalen McCracken came to the plate. The senior centerfielder chopped a slow ground-ball to shortstop Brayden Lybarger. Lybarger, who started on on the mound and threw 108 pitches, moved to his left, scooped up the grounder and threw an errant throw to first that pulled Elida’s first basemen Matt Fish up the line and off the bag. Brown was moving on contact since there was two outs. From the get-go, Van Wert head coach Charlie Witten was waving Brown around third so vigorously he looked like The Who’s Pete Townsend preforming Baba O’Reily. Brown slid into home plate, beating Fish’s throw home— and at all that was left for the Cougars was celebrating.

As soon as Brown beat the throw, the crowd erupted. Every player sprinted from the thirdbase dugout to maul McCracken out at first base. Pure elation because simply—they did it. In the same school year that saw Van Wert make the postseason in football for the first time in nearly two decades and take a District Final basketball game into OT, the Cougs hardball team finds themselves atop one of the best leagues in Ohio.

The gravity of the moment wasn’t lost on McCracken.

“It’s awesome, this has been one of my goals for four years. I just can’t put into words how happy I am,” said the senior centerfielder before he was choked up with emotions. He crouched down and took a second. When McCracken popped back up, you could feel the elation in his voice as he wore a smile from cheek to cheek. “I’m just so happy. We fought to the end, we all wanted it so bad. It’s great for our city and for our school— it’s awesome.”

The wins improves the state-ranked Cougars to 18-2 on the season and 8-1 in the WBL.

McCracken certainly wasn’t the only emotional one on Thursday. Coach Witten was right there with him.

“These guys played their hearts out, I’m about ready to cry right now, just tears of joy,” said the tenured coach. “I’m so thankful for these guys. They give us everything they have everyday. They’re just a great group of kids.”

The dramatic ending and celebration shouldn’t take away from the ball game that was played. In every way Thursday’s game showed the essence of what high school baseball is about. Two well coached teams with their ace on the mound, duking it out for superiority— with the most amount respect for their opponent.

On paper the game should have been low scoring affair. Miami commit Lawson Blackmore took the mound for the Cougars. The 6’5 flame throwing pitcher sat between 85-89 mph with his fastball. His counterpart? Brayden Lybarger, a sophomore with Division I offers already on the table. The lanky right hander eclipsed 90 mph on multiple occasions Thursday. Despite that much talent on the bump, Elida and Van Wert combined for six runs in the opening inning.

The Bulldogs started off the game with back-to-back weak one-out singles. Blackmore struck out the 3-hole for the second out, and looked as though those hits might be moot points. Lybarger came up to the and smoked a two hopper that took a wicked hop over the Van Wert first baseman Nate Temple, which scored the first run of the game. The next pitch, the Bulldogs hit a soft fly ball to center field that McCracken dropped (don’t worry, he made up for the error).

Two runs scored, and only one ball hit hard. The Cougars looked shaky in the field, nervous even.

“We started out shaky,” said Witten. “We didn’t play very well in the first inning. We mentally refocused in the bottom of the first inning.”

How did Van Wert respond? With a four run bottom of the first.

Jaxson Amweg, who has been suburb all season long, laced a single to centerfield— this set the table. Jake Lautzenheiser walked, which forced Witten’s hand to call for bunt. Instead of giving up an out, Hayden Maples laid a perfectly placed bunt down the line and beat out the throw. Temple kept the inning rolling with a walk, and Blackmore grounding into a fielder’s choice for the first out— the grounder tied the game at two. Parker Conrad’s two strike single to center gave the Cougs the lead, which they held till the sixth inning. One more run crossed in the bottom of the first.

“Getting runs in the bottom of the first was huge, then we just battled,” said the Cougars’ Coach.

Elida scored in the top half of the second on a Jordan Davis double to deep center.

TJ Reynolds scored in the bottom of the fourth following a leadoff double. Keaton Brown moved him over on a bunt, and then McCracken brought in Reynolds on a sac-fly, 5-3.

After those first two innings, both Blackmore and Lybarger settled in. Blackmore especially, though his pitch count was rising quickly. By the sixth inning he entered the frame over 100 pitches. A leadoff single, and a walk led off the inning— both baserunners would later score on bases-loaded walks. The game tied at 5-5.

The seventh was anything but pedestrian as both teams threatened. A lead off walk was negated in top of the frame by 3-6-3 double play. The bottom saw the Cougars load the bases but didn’t bring a run a across.

In the end, the Cougars won, and clinched the title. In Coach Witten 22nd year at the helm they won the league that features last year’s State-Runner up (Wapak) and 2016’s State Champion (Defiance).

“It’s not about me, its about these guys, they did all the work,” Coach Witten said pointing to his team following the game.

The work isn’t done for the Cougars, there is a lot left on the plate. They received the one seed in the Sectional, and will play the winner of Wapak and Kenton next Friday for the Sectional finals.

***

Elida 5 (ab-r-h-rbi-bb)

Adcock 5-0-1-0-0, Davis 3-1-2-2-2, Burger 4-1-1-1-1, 4-0-0-0-0, Lybarger 3-0-1-1-1, Whipple 4-0-2-0-0, Niebel 3-1-0-0-1, Parker 2-2-0-0-1, Ewing 2-0-0-0-0, Hullinger 1-0-0-0-1

2B: Adcock, Davis. HBP: Parker. E: Biglow, Lybarger

Van Wert 6 (ab-r-h-rbi-bb)

Jaxson Amweg 3-1-1-0-1, Jake Lautzenheiser 1-1-0-0-2, Hayden Maples 3-1-1-0-1, Nate Temple 3-0-1-1-1, Lawson Blackmore 4-1-0-1-0, Parker Conrad 2-0-1-1-1, *Owen Treece 1-0-0-0-0, TJ Reynolds 4-1-1-1-0, Keaton Brown 2-1-0-0-1, Jalen McCracken 3-0-1-1-0

2B: McCracken, Reynolds, Temple. SB: Lautzeneiser, Blackmore. E: McCracken

Pitching (ip-h-r-er-k-bb)

VW:

Blackmore 5.2-6-5-4-8-4

Conrad 0.1-0-0-0-1-2

(W)Maples 2.0-1-0-0-1-1

Elida:

Lybarger 7.0-6-5-5-5-6

(L) Adcock 0.2-0-1-0-2-1

Score R H E

Elida 210 002 00 - 5 7 3

VW 400 100 01 - 6 6 1