SHORT GAP - They've done it again. For the second year in a row, Coach Matt Miller's Frankfort Falcon baseball team has claimed the Region One championship and now advances to the state baseball tournament in Charleston.
By Chapin Jewell
SHORT GAP - They’ve done it again. For the second year in a row, Coach Matt Miller’s Frankfort Falcon baseball team has claimed the Region One championship and now advances to the state baseball tournament in Charleston.
Last year, the Falcons lost a heartbreaking, extra-innings affair to Wayne in the state semi-final game. This year, the Columbia Blue and Silver clad lads will strive to advance beyond the semi-final round into the state championship game, and win it.
The barrier in Frankfort’s path to Charleston was Fairmont Senior High School. The vaunted Polar Bears, a school that can boast Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton and Jim Delligatti, the creator of the Big Mac, as former students.
More importantly, however, is that Fairmont Seniors’ athletic programs have been on a roll of late, winning state championships and finishing as runners-up in a variety of sports. As the folks from Fairmont will tell you, they’ve just had an incredible run of talent coming through the school as of late.
The Polar Bears may have entered this series with Frankfort with a record of 18-11, and with an earlier 12-1 blowout loss at the hands of the Falcons, but the Polar Bears were winners of four straight, and have a roster steeped with the talent referenced above. In the end, however, Frankfort did what Frankfort has done all season, played lights-out defense behind stellar pitching, and waited for the bats to come alive at crunch time.
That’s exactly how both games played out, with Frankfort winning game one of the best of three series 2-1 in Short Gap, and game two in Fairmont 7-2.
“I said at the beginning of the year this is what we expected; we didn’t expect anything less, anything less would have been a disappointment. Our guys had one goal in mind and it hasn’t been accomplished yet. So, we’re very happy with where we are; you have to get through the Region to get to the state tournament and that’s what we’ve done, so we’re very happy with that,” Frankfort coach Matt Miller said of his team’s accomplishment.
Game one in Short Gap on Monday was an absolute nail-biter. Despite playing a full seven innings, the two teams could have simply just agreed to play the fourth inning and nothing else, as that’s where all the scoring happened.
Fairmont Senior would actually draw first blood, gaining a 1-0 advantage over Frankfort in the top of the fourth inning. Breeden Gilbert reached first base on a fielder’s choice and promptly was advanced to second on an error. With one out and Gilbert on second base, Frankfort pitcher Caleb Hare was called for a balk, advancing Gilbert to third. Connor Neal would then hit a fly out to right field, with the speedy Gilbert scoring from third after tagging up from third base
Frankfort wasted absolutely no time in responding, scoring both the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom of the fourth inning. It all started with Caleb Hare’s lead-off single to left field to get things started. Chandler Rhodes followed with a single to left field of his own to put runners on first and second. Two batters later, Brendan Whiteman singled on a ground ball to third, scoring Hare to tie things up 1-1, and advancing Rhodes to third. Sebastian Stewart then singled on a ground ball to second base to score Rhodes and put Frankfort up 2-1.
It would be all Frankfort needed, as Caleb Hare absolutely dominated the rest of the way on the mound to seal the 2-1 victory. Hare went the full seven innings, striking out five, walking none, and giving up no earned runs on three hits. The senior threw 59 strikes in 85 pitches thrown.
“Caleb has been our go-to guy all year, he does a great job and keeps runs off the board. The one run he did give up was due to complete stupidity, an error that should have never happened. So, he basically threw another shutout today, keeping guys off balance like he does. He keeps the ball down, gets us ground balls, our infield has been solid all year. He does such a great job keeping the other team off the board when he’s pitching. So, I’m very happy with him as always.”
Chris Phares of Fairmont Senior had a great day on the mound for the Polar Bears as well. Despite the loss, Phares went the full six innings, striking out one, walking three, giving up two runs on six hits.
“I’ll take that any day against anybody. To only give up two runs and throw 85 pitches in a complete game, especially against a good team like that, he did a great job,” Fairmont coach David Ricer said of Phares’ performance on the mound.
Frankfort collected six hits on the day, all singles. Zach Whitacre, Caleb Hare, Sebastian Stewart, Michael White, Chandler Rhodes, and Brendan Whiteman can be credited with the hits. It was Hare’s, Rhodes’, Whiteman’s and Stewart’s singles in succession in the fourth inning that earned the win for the Falcons. Hare and Rhodes get the credit for the runs scored, while Whiteman and Stewart earned the RBI’s.
The Polar Bears managed only three hits against Hare, two of which came from Cameron Hines, the third from Tanner Hoskinson. Breeden Gilbert scored Fairmont’s lone run while Connor Neal is credited with the RBI.
After game one, Fairmont coach David Ricer said, “Well, our backs are against the wall now, but we’ve been there before, it’s how we got through sectionals. We’ve got 9 (Connor Neal) on the mound tomorrow and we’re ready to roll.”
The Polar Bears would indeed be ready to roll on Tuesday with Connor Neal on the mound at Mary Lou Retton Park in Fairmont. Neal, the Kennedy Award winner as the Mountain State’s top football player, and quarterback of the Polar Bears’ state championship team, would give Frankfort all they could handle through the first six innings.
For their part, however, Frankfort mounted a stellar counter-attack on the mound with Sebastian Stewart, who got better and better as the game progressed.
Like in game one, Fairmont would draw first blood, this time, however, they didn’t wait any longer than the bottom of the first inning to put their first run on the board. Cameron Hines would start things off with a walk and was advanced to second on a bunt from Tanner Hoskinson. With two outs, Connor Neal would blast a single on a line drive to left field, scoring Hines from second to put the Polar Bears up 1-0 in the first inning.
Unlike the first game, when Frankfort responded immediately, it would take the Falcons until the fifth inning to tie the game at 1-1. Desperate for runners on base at this point, Frankfort devised a plan. If senior Michael White managed to make it on base to start the inning, sophomore Andrew Westfall would be called upon to come in and bunt. Michael White did his part, singling on a line drive to left field to get on base. In his first ever varsity at bat, Westfall came in and delivered the bunt that would push White to second and into scoring position.
Westfall delivered White to second but was called out at first. Zach Whitacre then hit a fly ball to center field for out number two. With two outs, and the frustration of not being able to score a run to at least tie the game in the fifth inning, Caleb Hare came to the plate. Just as Hare delivers for the Falcons on the pitcher’s mound, he delivers at the plate as well. Hare would knock a shot that could not be fielded all the way to the fence, doubling in the process and bringing Michael White in from second base to tie the game 1-1 in the top of the fifth inning.
Fairmont, however, would immediately respond in the bottom of the fifth inning and reclaim a 2-1 lead. Gavin Blair singled to drive in Exavier Posey from third for the go-ahead run.
Now to the top of the seventh inning, with Frankfort trailing 2-1, it was do or die time. Michael White would ground out for Frankfort’s out number one to lead things off. With the Falcons’ backs now firmly against the wall, Frankfort would again bring a sophomore into the game for their first varsity at bat, this time Nestor. Again, Frankfort at this point is looking to put someone on base. Nestor delivered, working the pitcher masterfully in a full count to earn a walk and reach first base,
Zach Whitacre would then double to advance Nestor to third. Still trailing 2-1, it would be Caleb Hare’s turn yet again to play the role of hero. Hare would hit a line drive single to center field to score both Nestor and Whitacre and give Frankfort the 3-2 lead. Frankfort was not done there, however, and all of the offense exploded.
Chandler Rhodes and Brady Whitacre would each walk. Brendan Whiteman would then single on a line drive to left field, scoring Rhodes and Whitacre and giving the Falcons a 5-2 lead. Sebastian Stewart would then single on a line drive to center to score Peyton Clark for the 6-2 advantage. Finally, to end all scoring, Damon Spencer would hit a sacrifice fly to left field to score Brendan Whiteman from third. In the blink of an eye, Frankfort turned a 2-1 deficit into a 7-2 lead.
Sebastian Stewart, who had pitched masterfully on the mound all day, was replaced by Zach Whitacre on the mound in the bottom of the seventh to close things out. Whitacre did just that, striking out the first two batter and forcing a ground out of the third to end the game.
Stewart went six innings on the mound for Frankfort in the win, striking out three, walking three, giving up two runs on six hits. Whitacre closed things out with one inning of work, striking out two in the process.
Stewart battled Fairmont’s Connor Neal pitch for pitch throughout the game. Neal pitched admirably for the Polar Bears until the seventh inning when Frankfort went on their run. He would be replaced in the seventh by two additional pitchers who unsuccessfully staved off Frankfort’s offensive assault.
Caleb Hare, Zach Whitacre, and Brendan Whiteman led Frankfort with two hits apiece. Hare doubled, singled, recorded three RBIs and scored a run; Zach Whitacre doubled twice and scored a run; Whiteman singled twice, had two RBI’s and scored a run. Sebastian Stewart and Damon Spencer each added an RBI; Spencer, Michael White, Peyton Clark and Ben Nestor each scored a run.
In post-game comments, Frankfort’s coach Miller was quick to point out the contributions of the upperclassman, noting that they have delivered all year as needed. Miller also made note of the roles sophomores Andrew Westfall and Ben Nestor played in big moments with their varsity at bats.
“Both sophomores, and in their first varsity at bats. Andy (Westfall) we know gets the job done on that, he gets it done all year with the JV group, and we work on it in practice, we worked with him in practice on it the other day, and he got the job done. Ben Nestor worked a great full count on one of the better pitchers we’ve seen all year. Connor Neal is a warrior, but Ben worked the count, got a ball off, got to ball four, and got to first base. But you know what was even more impressive to me, the bat was great, but it was how hard he ran from first to third on that ball down the line,” Miller said of their performance.
With the series win, Frankfort now advances their season record to 26-5 on the year, but more importantly, advances themselves to the state baseball tournament in Charleston, scheduled for next week.This was the goal all season, nobody in and around Frankfort baseball can deny their eyes have been set on Charleston all season. They now will strive to make the most of this earned opportunity.