It takes a spark and Garrett Payne had that in him. To call Miller’s odds of winning its VISAA Division 2 semifinal with Steward slim is putting it mildly. To be exact, heading into the bottom of the fifth, the Spartans had a 99.89 win probability. By the end of the sixth, it was 99.75 in Miller’s favor. Wild, crazy, unusual, none of that does justice to just how unprecedented the Mavericks’ comeback win in the state finals. But thanks to a nine run rally in the fifth and then a five run spree in the sixth, the majority of which was fueled by five home runs hit by three different players, Miller advanced to its third straight state title showing and fifth in six years with Friday afternoon’s 15-12 victory.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before and I’ve seen a lot of baseball,” said Mavericks coach Billy Wagner. “Things weren’t looking good. I went into the dugout and said ‘hey guys let’s start getting some of the seniors ready to get in the game, it’s looking like their last high school game. Then all of the sudden Garrett comes up and it’s ping, big hit. Then ping, big hit. It just happened so quick and I’m really just proud of the poise the guys showed. It was just amazing.”
The game-tying rally in the fifth wasn’t just wowing because it involved nine runs being scored, but it was because they were all scored without an out in between. Payne led the inning off with a solo homerun that he was psyched up about as he raised his arm in the air rounding first base to rile up his teammates.
“I was really only going up there with the intentions to poke one in the gap, a single or double to get things started,” Payne said. “I didn’t think it was going out until I actually saw it go out and so then I showed a little emotion, tried to get the guys fired up, make sure the team felt it.”
It worked. A walk, followed by an error and an opposite field RBI single from Vince DeLeonardo. Then after another walk, Jacob Adam came to the dish and hit a no-doubter grand slam to left center to make it a three-run game and change the mood in the stands entirely.
“Things were looking pretty dark, I’ll be honest,” Adam said. “I want to say my hopes were high but still a small part of you says that it’s not going to work out. Then you start putting together a rally like that.”
From that point forward, the Mavericks and most in attendance could recognize what was happening — the inevitable. After another error and then a single from Laken Tignor, it was Jeremy Wagner’s turn to put his stamp on the game. A 3-three run jack to left did the trick and tied the game up at 10-10.
“Jeremy comes up and hits that homerun… I don’t think I’ve ever gone that crazy in a baseball game,” Adam said. “That was ridiculous.”
He was not done for the day. Because while Miller tied things up, Steward finally retired the side in order after that. The Mavericks had to wait until the sixth to go ahead. Miller’s first lead of the game came after an error put Henry Hardy on base and Jacob Exum brought him home with an RBI double. Then it was Tignor’s turn for an RBI double.
In the next at bat, Jeremy Wagner went deep again, this time to center. The following at bat was Payne. And sure enough, he went yard to left to make it 15-10.
“I think it was all the adrenaline,” Wagner said. “The wind might have helped a bit but after the last game I said ‘the long balls aren’t going to happen’ and then of course they all just happened. It was great. I’ve never had a game like this before, it was fun to be a part of.”
So going in the seventh the Mavericks had a sizable lead, but it wasn’t going to be that easy. It wasn’t that kind of day. Steward rallied for a pair of runs with a solo shot from Will Glazebrook and an RBI single from Alex Poling. The Spartans had the bases loaded with two outs and the go ahead run at the plate but the circus came to a close with a fly ball to right.
After both teams traded runs in the first with an RBI single from Poling in the top and the same from Jack Carey in the bottom. After a quiet second, third, the Mavericks found themselves in a 8-1 hole as the Spartans were able to three RBI singles (Michael Shamus, Ethan Hopp and Logan Ransom) and a pair of two run singles (Harrison Clifton and Owen Deshazo) sandwiched between a pair of hit batters and a walk. The chasm grew to 10-1 in the top of the fifth with a walk to Grayson Rose, a hit batter, another walk and a wild pitch to score Rose followed up an another RBI single from Poling.
After losing to Miller three times last year including in the state championship, it looked like Steward was finally going to snap what was a five game losing streak to the Mavericks after a pair of regular season losses. Of course, then there was that 0.11% left to deal with. That set the table for the theatrics from Miller.
“What comes to mind for me in a game like this is a kid like Exum who battles and brings a ton of energy on both sides,” Billy Wagner said. “A guy like that who dives for everything, he’s a lightning rod in the dug out that has a lot of quiet field generals. He’s that sparkplug. Those things go unseen but he sparked us.”
On the day, Jeremy Wagner was 4-for-5 with five RBI and three runs scored. Payne hit 2-for-3 with two RBI and two runs. Dileonardo went 2-for-4 with an RBI and a run. Adam was 1-for-3 with four RBI. Tignor finished 2-for-2 with two runs and an RBI. Exum was 1-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored while Jack Carey was 1-for-3 with an RBI.
The top-seeded Mavericks (21-7) will face Highland in the championship game on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Shepherd Field in Colonial Heights. The Hawks upset second-seeded Greenbrier Christian in the other semifinal 7-2. It will be the first meeting between the two this year. The two last played in the 2017 semifinals, the year the Mavericks won their first Division 2 title. Payne is slated to start after going five and a third innings in a win over Isle of Wight on Tuesday in the quarterfinals.
“We’ve got a lot of pent up energy we’ve got to sit on tonight,” Payne said. “When it comes to game time tomorrow it’s going to be a ‘leave everything out there’ attitude.”