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Reporter's Notebook: State baseball tournament

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Owls had strong fan support throughout the post-season, including a sizable contingent for the MSHSAA Class 3 Championships at Springfield.
(Chris Allen/Democrat-News)
SPRINGFIELD -- Top-ranked Santa Fe dominated the MSHSAA Class 1 Championships final against No. 4 Norwood, coming back from a two-run deficit heading into the third inning for a 12-3 victory.

The Chiefs' three returning all-staters each played key roles: sophomore Keaton Graf fired a two-hit complete game, retiring 14 straight batters after yielding three first-inning runs, only one earned; senior Dalton Wilkinson had three doubles among his four hits, scoring three runs and driving in two; and junior Andrew Curry's two-run blast which cleared the right-field wall with room to spare broke the backs of the Pirates with Santa Fe's 8-3 lead in the fifth.

■ Strange that with that talented trio back -- along with three other starters, including seniors Ross Tieman and Andrew Smith at the top of the line-up -- from a 15-3 I-70 Conference champion in 2011, the Chiefs were unranked in the pre-season coaches' poll. Santa Fe entered the rankings at No. 3 on March 28, after crushing its first two opponents. A 5-3 loss to then-No. 5 Concordia dropped the Chiefs to sixth in the poll, but they held the top spot in the last two editions. It should be a long time before the program is again so seriously undervalued heading into a season.

■ Much of the Marshall coaching staff and players, some with friends on the Santa Fe club, watched the Chiefs' victory celebration. This the day before the Owls' first appearance in the Final Four, with a tilt against defending champion Westminster Christian looming.

■ During a four-day, three-night stay in Springfield South, crossing the James River Freeway on National was a common -- and confusing -- experience, far more confounding than the Warrensburg by-pass roundabouts. The north- and south-bound lanes criss-cross on the overpass, so one is driving on the left side British-style between on-off ramps. Were all the civil engineers out to lunch during interchange design planning sessions?

■ I'm not as tech-savvy these days as I was in my youth -- consider it a case of overload -- but have been able to post game stories and photos on-line within a couple of hours after the end of each game. I'm working with an older laptop which has been prone to crashes, thankfully with a recovery system, and with a nearly unreadable keyboard. I also shot video along with still photos, but was unable to link the camcorder with the computer, so it wasn't until the tape was physically delivered to the office that it could be uploaded to YouTube. Thanks to KMMO's Greg Schmidt for the relay, since I remained in the Ozarks last week for vacation.

■ Friday's 8-2 loss to Westminster Christian was the first meeting for the Owls against a St. Louis school since being beaten by Lafayette 10-2 in the '99 Smith-Cotton Classic. That squad included sophomore David Freese, the 2011 World Series MVP. That was a year after future MLB All-Star Ryan Howard was unable to lead the Lancers to the playoffs, and Marshall had taken a 3-2 decision at the Sedalia meet over Marquette -- a Rockwoods District sister school a mile away from the new Lafayette campus. It's fair to say St. Louis baseball is played a high level, due largely to the extensive Khoury League youth program -- from which this reporter sprung, playing mainly with teammates who would take Lafayette to three straight state titles in the '70s and Ballwin to the American Legion national championship in 1972.

■ Little is more illustrative of the improvement in the Marshall baseball program than how competitive it was with the Wildcats' powerhouse -- they are, after all, two-time champions -- for most of the game. One bad inning can be deceiving; a call here, a bounce there, and the outcome can be decidedly different. That in no way diminishes Westminster's skill at seizing the opportunity presented, but the unheralded Owls applied considerable pressure to the eventual state champion, which would score seven runs in the first inning during an easy 10-4 victory over Lutheran South in the final.

■ An indelible memory for Marshall senior Aaron Skinner, the semifinal starter, should be the encouraging words from Westminster assistant coach Andy Benes following the third-place game. Benes showed a genuine interest in Skinner, inquiring about his college options, which went well beyond a perfunctory pat on the back. When a former All-Star -- who racked up 155 career wins over 14 Major League seasons -- takes time out to encourage an opposing player, it should be stored away as a mental keepsake. "Skinny" deserved it, but it was also a classy gesture by Benes.

■ One final note from Springfield: Not only did the Owls have an historic season on the field, but in the grandstands as well. In the 16 years I've covered Marshall baseball, never before have they had the fan support they did during their run to state. And it wasn't just at the Final Four, which should be expected, but also from the first game of the post-season -- playing no closer than 130 miles from home with a district at Osage Beach and playoff games in Cuba and Rogersville. The Owls' crowds were good all season, but how well they traveled had to be a big boost to the players and coaches.

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