There was no big hit to break the game open for either side, instead it was the little things — and a lot of them — but mostly for one side.
In a solid pitcher’s duel between Miller’s Stu Barrett and Steward’s Harrison Clifton, one had a defense behind them when the chips were down, and the other didn’t. One team forced the issue on the basepaths, the other got caught when its base runners were hard to come by.
‘Coming in I knew it was going to be tight and so you’ve got to take chances,” said Mavericks coach Billy Wagner. “There was some luck on the bases. We got away with a few. Sometimes it’s just better to be lucky than good and that was us.”
Miller came into the VISAA Division 2 championship game as the big dog, the top seed, the defending champs. After run-ruling Isle of Wight and Atlantic Shores in the first and second rounds with both ending in five innings, the Mavericks tapped into what they do best in competitive games — taking a foot when given an inch in a 3-0 win to a second straight state title.
“That’s the MO of this team, priding ourselves on making chaos,” said senior shortstop Ethan Murray. “We pride ourselves on making the other team have to play fast. It worked today and has all four years that I’ve been here. That’s how we scored those runs we needed.”
Barrett has thrown his fair share of five inning complete games, but with the pitching depth that Miller’s had the last two years, getting a seven inning showing has proved elusive. On Monday in his last start for the Mavericks, he picked up his first by allowing just two hits and only six base runners.
“Of all the pitchers I’ve had he’s been the guy that’s had the most talent but we’ve been waiting on all the parts to fit together and him to put it together,” Wagner said. “It was a great way to end a career at Miller, a complete game and a shutout.”
Barrett worked out of three minor jams, the first two in the first two innings with a runner on third with two outs. Then second was in the fourth with runners on first and second with nobody out. But Barrett only allowed two balls to get into the outfield in the first two innings and one of them was a pop-fly.
“I had a lot of fun out there, it was a good time,” Barrett said. “I’ve changed my arm slot a little bit and the ball is sinking a little bit more and so they were driving it into the ground so it’s really good to have a solid defense.”
Between Henry Hardie at third, Ethan Murray at short, Ethan Chenault at second and Jack Marshall at first, it was a ground ball clinic defensively that the Mavericks put on.
“Stu just went up there and did his job and that was so impressive and I could not be more proud for him because he’s been working for this all year and just kept the ball down,” Murray said. “He took care of business and we took care of the rest.”
At the plate, Miller got on board in the second with Jeremy Wagner reaching on a single and then scoring from third when Brent Rice reached first base on an error to make it 1-0. In the third, Adam Hackenberg singled and his courtesy runner, Will Stafford, was able to score on a wild pitch from Clifton and it was 2-0.
If there was a back breaker it was the bottom of the fifth and top of the sixth. There Miller added one last run of insurance with Jack Marshall picking up his third hit of the night. When he stole third cleanly an errant throw to the bag into left field (the fifth error for the Steward defense) allowed him to get up and run home, but only successfully there because Steward missed an easy throw to the plate.
“Our big thing in games like this is creating creating chaos,” Marshall said. “We did that and then Stu pitched such a great game, that’s how you win these kinds of games.
That made it 3-0 going into the sixth where Marshall and Hackenberg combined to break the Spartan’s spirit. After Sam Barden was hit by a pitch to lead the inning off, Hackenberg picked him off on a throw to first with Marshall making the tag.
“Jack is my favorite guy to peak over at because we have this connection,” Hackenberg said. “I’ve picked off six guys in the second half of the season and he just gives me a little sign and I’ll drop down my head a little bit. That’s exactly how it happened. Guy gets hit, you never know, maybe their head isn’t in the game after that and he got on earlier in the game and we noticed he was taking big secondary leads. It was a cat and mouse game. We’ve been baiting guys like that. We do it and then you see how a team gets demoralized.”
In the seventh the Spartans put a runner on second with the tying run on deck, but a strikeout from Barrett ended the game and handed the Mavericks senior class a second straight championship trophy.
With Murray headed to Duke, Barrett to George Mason and Hackenberg off to Clemson, the Mavericks have to completely rebuild the bulk of their battery. Miller’s celebrated class of 2015 that featured current VCU pitcher Mike Dailey and Jack Morris, who played at Liberty first and is now at North Greenville, set the bar for the program by making to back-to-back state title games in 2014 and 2015. Now Murray, Hackenberg and Barrett leave the underclassmen on this team with bar set even higher with back-to-back championships. But considering just how important those younger players were in this tournament, this exiting group of seniors doesn’t see a drop off in the near future.
“I’m most proud of what the young guys did in this tournament,” Murray said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Ethan Chenault, Henry Hardie, Jeremy Wagner, they did what they needed to and they’re going to take care of business and do this again on their own. I just know it. There’s only bright things for this team in the future.”
Miller finishes the season at 25-8. It’s the program’s third state championship and second straight at the Division 2 level. The Mavericks have played in the final four in five straight seasons. This was their fourth state final in five seasons. Their first Division 2 championship showing came with a loss to Steward in 2014.
Times have obviously changed. And now a new leaf turns over for the program.