Call it an upset. Call it playing with house money. Call it shocking the world.
Call it what you like, but for the Oak Hill High School baseball team it was simply about believing in each other.
Possessing that strong belief in each other sent the upstart Red Devils to an improbable run to the Class AAA Region 3, Section 2 championship a week ago.
Now they sit two wins away from a state tournament berth at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston.
The final leg in their magical run to the big dance begins Monday with a best-of-3 regional series at St. Albans.
Game 2 will be played in Oak Hill on Tuesday, while Game 3 will be back in St. Albans Wednesday if needed.
“This team is gritty. They play the game hard and find ways to win,” Oak Hill head coach Matt Boyd said. “We don’t really have a lot of guys that hit home runs or hit a lot of doubles, but we just find ways to score runs. We play a little small ball. We pitch it well and we play pretty good defense. That is the way we have been winning.”
From the outside looking in, things didn’t look good for the Red Devils at the beginning of postseason play.
“Going into sectional play, we weren’t playing very well at the end of the season. We had lost six in a row going into the postseason.,” Boyd said. “Quite honestly, I didn’t know what to expect going into sectional play. We were kinda reeling and struggling a little bit at the plate. Something just clicked and the kids started believing. We started swinging at better pitches and making the routine plays.”
Oak Hill beat Woodrow Wilson in game one of sectional play before dropping a 7-2 decision to top-seeded Greenbrier East in game two.
In the double elimination format, the Red Devils fell into the elimination bracket.
Winning the sectional title meant Oak Hill had to beat Woodrow Wilson a second time before a rematch with the Spartans.
The Red Devils would then have to beat top-seeded Greenbrier East on consecutive days at Spartan Yards in Fairlea. It was a Spartan team that entered the postseason at 16-4.
“I told the kids that nobody expected them to be here, outside of who was standing in this huddle,” Boyd said. “Nobody expected us to go to East twice and beat them. That is not easy to do. East is a really good team. They had only lost four games this season. I told the kids if we could get through Friday night, then the pressure would be on Greenbrier East. The kids just fought and believed and got the job done.”
The three consecutive wins came in the most improbable way for a high school team to win these days – complete game victories.
“Our pitching has been excellent. We had guys pitch complete games. During the season we were piecing guys together trying to get things done. In the postseason we got three straight complete games. Guys just came alive. Right now they believe and we are pretty confident right now,” Boyd said.
Getting the Friday night win over Greenbrier East involved Boyd handing the ball to a freshman pitcher, Jaydon McClain.
“Jaydon came in and threw eight innings in a sectional elimination game. Not only did he do that, he also got the double that put us ahead in the eighth inning,” Boyd said. “He is a confident kid and I don’t ever think he doubted he could do it. I am not sure anybody else thought he could, but he thought he could and that is all that matters.”
Trailing 6-2 Friday going into the sixth inning, Oak Hill scored four runs to tie the game and eventually sent it to extra innings. In the eighth inning, the Red Devils took down the Spartans by scoring three runs for the 9-6 win.
The big win gave Oak Hill the best scenario it could ask for with pitching ace, Bradley Lokant toeing the rubber Saturday.
The rock-steady Lokant was masterful. The senior lefty scattered six hits, while allowing just two runs in a 3-2 sectional championship victory.
“It was very special. We don’t get down on ourselves very much. We are a family and we have each other’s back,” senior catcher Tyreece Nelson said. “Our team was very confident and we prepared ourselves for the moment. We play with a lot of energy and a lot of passion.”
On a team that is not loaded with big bats, Nelson has been the power guy, leading the Red Devils in RBI’s and batting average at a .364 clip.
Nelson has also had a big hand in the pitching success for Boyd’s squad.
“In the sectional tournament he caught every game for us in the heat. What he has done for us behind the plate, you can’t replace it,” Boyd said. “He is the one guy we have that can drive the ball into the gaps and hit home runs. If we get guys on base in front of him, he can drive them home.”
“He is solid and he is smart. He came to me about halfway through the season and wanted to call pitches,” Boyd went on to say. “Ty calls the pitches and he handles the game. I trust him to do that. That is impressive for a high school kid. He is out there, he understands the game and sees what is working. He has done a great job doing that.”
Oak Hill’s success starts at the top of the order with junior shortstop Zane Wolfe. Wolfe leads the team in hits and has scored twice as many times as any other Red Devils player.
“Zayne is our motor guy. If he gets on, we typically score that inning,” Boyd said. “He plays the game so hard. Not only is he talented, but he just has another gear about him and our kids feed off him. I have seen a lot of good shortstops out there and I wouldn’t trade him for any of them.”
Another key cog for the Red Devils has been freshman center fielder Trent Rider.
“I don’t think he had one error all year as a freshman. He is hitting second in our order and hitting right around .300 and runs really well,” Boyd said “He has a chance to be really special. He is a baseball guy. He understands the game and plays it at a high level.”
Jacob Ward hits behind Nelson and is also hitting over .300. Ward had five hits in seven trips to the plate in the two decisive sectional games at East.
“We have some guys that can play the game and we have some young guys that are really talented,” Boyd said. The young guys gained more confidence as the year went on. We have relied heavily on some of our freshmen.”
Defeating the Spartans for the sectional championship was daunting. Beating the Red Dragons will be every bit as daunting, if not more.
“We played them earlier in the year. They are very well coached and fundamentally sound,” Boyd said. “They do not beat themselves with mistakes. If you are going to beat them, you have to beat them. They won’t give you the game. All the way around they are solid and do the little things well.”
St. Albans has some pop at the plate. The Red Dragons are led by Tyson Burks who is hitting over .500 with 35 RBI, while Drew Whitman, Will Campbell and Trent Short are all hitting over .400. Campbell has also been the ace of the staff with a 7-1 record.
“We will have to play really good defense and keep our heads in the game the entire way,” Nelson said. “We have to play smart on the bases and play with a lot of energy. Underdogs, that is what we are and we like it.”
The clashes between Oak Hill and St. Albans are slated to start at 7 p.m. each day.