The Smith-Cotton baseball team ended Senior Night with a walk-off conference championship on Friday at Dey Field at Liberty Park.
A run in the ninth inning lifted the Tigers to a 2-1 win over St. Pius X to improve to 8-0 in West Central Conference play and clinch the team’s first conference title since 2010.
Smith-Cotton scored in the ninth on wild pitch to score courtesy runner Lane McFail, running for pitcher Austin Bullerd who drew a one-out walk. McFail then went to third on a single up the middle by Cody Kozak.
“It was just a fastball,” Kozak said. “They brought in a new pitcher and I hit the one ball hard down the line (foul). I just tried to hit it back up the middle. I didn’t get all of it but I got enough to push it back up there.”
It is the eighth time this season the Tigers have won a one or two-run game.
“Our team is a big family,” said senior shortstop Luke Archibeque. “We don’t stop for anything. When we’re behind, we always come back and make it a challenge for the other team to keep us off the field. I know that this is most of our last year, we’re all going to remember the moment we became conference champs.”
Before the game, the team honored Smith-Cotton Hall-of-Famer and former St. Louis Browns shortstop Bud Thomas. During the game, it was the current shortstop stealing the show. Archibeque had five assists in the game, including two where he ranged to the right of second base to make the play.
“One, he’s a senior leader and two, he wanted it more than anybody else,” said Smith-Cotton coach Jud Kindle. “He played a heck of a game defensively and saved the game at least once, maybe twice. He’s a gamer and he did a great job for us.”
Archibeque’s biggest play came in the top of the ninth. St. Pius had the go-ahead run on second with two outs when Sam Martino hit a sharp line drive up the middle. Archibeque went to his left and dove to snag the ball to end the inning.
“I knew the guy on second, if it got into the outfield, he was going to score no matter what,” Archibeque said. “I knew the way (Bullerd) throws, he was going to make them ground it out or pop it up. I knew it’s going to be one of my last games at this amazing field, so I was going to push myself as hard as I can. When I caught that ball, I felt like the happiest person in the world making that play.”
Bullerd got the win in three innings of relief, striking out three and allowing two hits and a walk. Twice St. Pius had the go-ahead run in scoring position and twice Bullerd worked out of it. In the eighth inning, Zak Michalek reached third before a strikeout and a groundout to second ended the threat.
“I was just trying to pitch strikes and keep the ball low in the zone,” Bullerd said. “If they do make contact, it’s not anything too hard so our infielders can get to it and make an easy out.”
Kozak started the game for Smith-Cotton and went six innings, allowing one run on five hits, walking two and striking out three. Kozak allowed runners in each of the first four innings
David Ringel started for St. Pius and pitched 8 1-3 innings before being lifted for a reliever with Kozak at the plate and a runner on first in the ninth. Ringel struck out five and allowed two hits, starting batters off with breaking balls.
“We didn’t see too many fastballs,” Kozak said. “That’s not something we’re used to.”
Smith-Cotton got a single from Dom Zerilli to lead off the second, and that was the last Tiger hit until Chance McMullin beat out an infield single to lead off the sixth.
“Our hitters just didn’t make very good adjustments, especially early,” Kindle said.
St. Pius struck first in the game. Austin Mendez drew a one-out walk in the fifth, stole second and took third on a throwing error. He scored when Sam Martino set down a bunt.
Smith-Cotton answered in the bottom of the sixth. Nick Hagedown hit a chopper to second with McMullin on third, and the Warriors’ second baseman came home with the throw but not before McMullin slid across the plate to tie the game.
Neither team could score in the seventh or eighth innings, Smith-Cotton going down in order each time and St. Pius getting runners on only to have Bullerd work out of it.
“A lot of seniors have been playing together for a while, and we all feel like we have each other’s backs,” Kozak said. “It was good team chemistry.”