Head coach Ian Verts had returned to his alma mater a year earlier and was trying to instill a winning culture, but the Owls had only two victories to show for it. However, he, his assistants and the players kept working and the effort paid off Wednesday at Osage Beach with a 5-2 victory over Boonville for the Class 3, District 9 Tournament championship and the school's first playoff berth since 2006.
"When I came to town, I said to the kids, 'Guys, we can turn this thing around,'" Verts recalled. "The kids believed in it, the coaching staff believed in it."
Marshall got close a year ago, tying the school record with 14 wins before losing to the Pirates in the district finals. But the Class of 2011 "paved the way" for success, Verts acknowledged.
"They showed us how to win," he said. "They came up short ... but this year it was our turn, and our kids knew that. They were ready for this moment."
Nobody was more ready than left-hander Aaron Skinner, a starting pitcher on that two-win club. He got the call for the title contest in what could have been the last game of his prep career and delivered a three-hitter, overcoming some early defensive miscues to keep the Owls in the contest until the offense delivered with a four-run sixth-inning rally.
"It feels amazing," Skinner declared. "Never been here before, never happened to me before."
Skinner issued his only walk of the game to the first batter he faced, sophomore Austin Francis going to second on a bunt, advancing to third on a grounder and scoring on a dropped fly ball to left field.
Junior Jalen Poindexter got Boonville's first hit with a one-out single in the third. A wild pick-off throw and balk got him to the other corner and junior Zachary Nixon's sacrifice fly gave the Bucs a 2-0 lead.
However, Skinner allowed only one more baserunner the rest of the game, retiring nine straight batters until yielding a two-out single in the sixth.
"I got into trouble a little bit, but found my groove and settled in," he said. "I worked through it and kept battling."
Meanwhile, Marshall was blanked by junior righty Caleb Hein through four innings before getting a break when senior Collin Brennan was hit by a pitch to lead off the fifth. Junior Darion Lawrence, whose .596 on-base percentage is the highest on the team by a whopping .123 points, doubled and senior Sebastian Sims' sac fly plated the Owls' first run.
In the sixth, "the opportunities presented themselves" for the Birds, according to Verts. Senior Jordan Pannell doubled with one out and junior Henry Tietz was issued an intentional walk. Sophomore Tyler Cott's single loaded the bases and chased Hein in favor of senior Keith Poindexter, who had surrendered 15 earned runs in two previous starts against the Owls.
Poindexter got two quick strikes on Brennan, but the Marshall designated hitter stayed alive to draw a walk to force in the tying run. That brought up senior Collin Porter, who jerked a double down the left-field line to knock in two runs to put the Owls in front.
"It was nerve-wracking," Porter admitted, "but I stayed calm for my teammates and got a big hit for us."
Sharing in the heroism was especially sweet for Porter, whose older brother Jared was a sophomore starter on Marshall's only other playoff team.
"I've been waiting for this since I was a little kid," he confessed. "It's what I've been waiting for my whole life."
Lawrence added an exclamation point with an RBI single, and that was all Skinner (5-2) needed -- retiring the Pirates (11-16) in order in the seventh to touch off the celebratory pile near the mound.
"Playing hard, battling back; that's the only way we know how to play," Skinner declared. "I think we've got a lot of confidence."
By becoming the only foe to beat three-time defending NCMC champion Boonville three times in a season since it joined the league four years ago, the Owls will travel to District 10 champion Cuba on Tuesday in search of their first sectional victory -- having lost at Platte County, 13-4, in '06.
Verts never got to experience the spontaneous joy of a district championship as a player, although Marshall won the NCMC title his junior season. When reflecting on the journey to this point, a lump formed in his throat.
"It's awesome," Verts remarked. "A lot of hard work is what it is."