Lowest-Seeded, Chillicothe (Mo.) HS BB Hornets Finish District Tourney on Top

(UPDATED with coach's quotes Thursday, 10:20 a.m.) Capture only second state-tourney berth in program’s 25 years by edging Oak Grove 2-1 May 19; will host state game next Tuesday

As reported to C-T
Chillicothe High School baseball Hornets, 2021 Class 4 District 15 champions

RAYTOWN, Mo. — Seeded at the bottom of a generally-even Class 4 District 15 Tournament field, the Chillicothe HS baseball Hornets took three games at three separate sites to come away from the actual play atop the heap and headed to state-level play for only the second time in their program’s 25-years history.

Continuing to get outstanding starting pitching, this time from senior Mason Baxter, the Hornets leveled their season’s record at 12-12 Wednesday (May 19) by turning an opening-inning home run by junior catcher Brock Ward and a final-inning, bases-loaded forceout grounder to nip the Oak Grove Panthers 2-1 in the district’s title game.

“Going in … as the ‘5’ seed kind of fueled this group,” Joshua Lisle, Chillicothe’s first-year head coach, acknowledged to the C-T Thursday morning. “They really thrived in the underdog role.”

Thanks to multiple days of rain, the contest took place at the all-artificial-turf Raytown High School field one day after CHS had knocked off No. 1 seed – and nominal tourney “host” – Odessa 7-4 at Raytown South High’s partially-turfed diamond and four days after slipping past Richmond 5-4 in nine innings at Odessa’s field.

Just as they had when they won the 2005 district tourney at Marshall, the Hornets shrugged off entering the postseason multiple games below .500 on the season and reeled off three triumphs in a row, eliminating the No. 1 seed in the semfinals and then beating a higher seed – Oak Grove was the No. 3 pick this year behind Odessa and Excelsior Springs – for the crown.

With Wednesday’s contest tied 1-1 since OGHS had offset Ward’s first-inning blast with a tally in the home half of the fourth, Chillicothe loaded the bases in the seventh against new reliever Conner Hernandez on Tucker Wagers’ leadoff single up the middle, a force play, a pivotal dropped fly ball in right-center field that left runners at second and third, and a predictable intentional walk to Ward.

That put CHS sophomore first baseman Landon Winder, whose steady and productive hitting all season had moved him from the bottom third of the batting order at season’s start to cleanup at its end, in the game’s crosshairs.

Avoiding overanxiety in the pressure situation, he watched the first delivery to him from the Oak Grove hurler, who’d taken over because the starter had been at 91 pitches by the end of the sixth inning and the OGHS coach likely didn’t want to risk him reaching his by-rule pitch limit (105) during the seventh and have a reliever potentially enter in a jam, miss the strike zone.

Winder went after the next one and put it in play, bouncing it to the shortstop. When all the middle infielder could produce out of the ground ball was a forceout of Ward heading into second base, lead runner Baxter touched home plate to snap the tie.

“Our kids battled all game long and found a way to scratch another run across,” praised the CHS head coach.

Then came a major shock and huge gamble by Joshua Lisle, Chillicothe’s first-year head coach.

With Baxter at “only” 84 pitches through six sensational innings of 3-hits, 1-walk, 1-run ball, the Hornets’ coach not only lifted him from his pitching role, but summoned a sophomore to the mound who had not thrown a varsity pitch all season.

Max Wagers, a starting outfielder who went down for about a month with an injury sustained while catching a fly ball during a Marshall Invitational Tournament game in mid-April, walked from the dugout to the mound to begin CHS’ biggest half-inning of the season and operated as if he’d almost lived there all spring.

“I bet every Chillicothe fan there thought I had lost my mind, bringing in Max to close that game,” Lisle chuckled.

Smartly taking Baxter’s aggressive pitching cue – the senior had pounded the strike zone all evening, firing 62 strikes in his 84 offerings, M. Wagers followed a first-pitch ball with three consecutive strikes, the last of which caught the Oak Grove No. 8 batter looking for a strikeout.

The No. 9 hitter took strike one, then swung and popped the ball up to the right side of the infield where Baxter, relocated to second base while starting second sacker Brock Miller retreated to M. Wagers’ prior right field spot, put the squeeze on it and simultaneously on the Panthers.

Needing to get one out before the foe scored a run, the Hornets’ young reliever squared off with the leadoff batter in the OGHS lineup and didn’t back off.

The righthander fired a called strike one, then another to bring his team within one strike of not only victory, but the district crown and trip to state competition.

Only his ninth pitch of the inning missed the strike zone, but No. 10 produced a swing and miss and elation from the Chillicothe squad and its fans on hand in the cloudy, damp conditions.

Baxter – 4-3 now after losing his first three mound decisions – kept Oak Grove batters on the defensive with his relentless stream of strikes. He faced only seven batters over the minimum through his six sterling frames.

“He was lights out the entire game,” saluted Lisle.

The only scoring damage done against him came in the fourth after two were out. With a man at first base and two down, a single to left field on a 1-2 pitch allowed the Panther baserunner to come all the way home with the tying run.

Chillicothe (Mo.) HS BB Hornets junior Brock Ward, seen following his third-inning single as it carries into the outfield during the team's May 10 home win over Savannah, swatted a first-inning home run to get the team off to a positive start in Wednesday's (May 19) Class 4 District 15 Tournament championship game against Oak Grove. CHS subsequently snapped a 1-1 tie with a run in the top of the seventh and defeated the Panthers 2-1 to earn a berth in the state tournament – possibly to a rematch with Savannah – next Tuesday (May 25). It is only the second time in their CHS program's 25-years history it has won a district championship and qualified for state play and the first time since 2005.

Back in the first half-inning, after Baxter and Miller each fanned against the Oak Grove starting pitcher, Ward squared up a 2-0 pitch and sent it over the fence in left field for an instant Chillicothe lead. The home run was the righthanded batter’s first of the season and the team’s fourth. It also produced Ward’s team-leading 20th run batted in.

Statistically in the championship-game victory, Chillicothe had a slight edge in hits, getting four to OGHS’ three.

The only player in the contest with more than one hit was Ward. His 2-for-3 day plus a walk lifted his season’s batting average to .411, his on-base rate to .522, his slugging rate to .589, and his OPS (on-base plus slugging) rate to 1.111. All of those are team-highs.

Winder’s winning RBI was his 14th run knocked in this season, tying Baxter for third on the club.

“This was maybe the toughest offensive night we had in a while,” Lisle reflected. “I’m not sure if we were nervous at the plate, but I felt like we didn’t get very good swings or at-bats.”

By scoring the winning run, Baxter crossed the plate for a team-leading 23rd time.

While the Baxter-M. Wagers duo was limiting Oak Grove to three singles and one walk, Chillicothe batters were battling the two Panthers pitchers to draw a half-dozen bases on balls (including the last intentional one).

CHS left eight runners aboard and Oak Grove six.

The Hornets limited their errors – an Achilles’ heel all season – to only two. While that was one more than Oak Grove, the losers’ lone miscue played a huge part in setting up the winning run.

“The keys for us winning a district title start with pitching and defense,” detailed the CHS head coach. “… Our defense was rock-solid the entire tournament. We avoided the one bad inning that had hurt us so much this year.”

By winning the district crown, CHS’ baseball squad assured itself of not only at least one more game – at home no less, but a rematch with a fellow Midland Empire Conference club.

Top seed St. Joseph: Lafayette shut out Savannah Thursday in the District 16 title game shifted to Lathrop to have a dry-enough field.

The 2021 Hornets’ only meeting with Lafayette ended with a 4-3 loss. Baxter threw a complete game for CHS with all of the Irish runs scoring on a third-inning grand slam by LHS' Jayden Little that erased a 4-3 CHS lead. That game was at St. Joseph.

When Chillicothe’s 2005 team competed in the state tournament, it lost 5-3 – also at Chillicothe’s “June” Shaffer Memorial Park stadium – in the first round to St. Joseph: Benton, ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 3 at the time.

That game saw the underdog Hornets no-hit through the first six innings and down 5-0, only to stage a comeback which pulled them within 5-3 and have their Nos. 3 and 4 batters in the lineup hit, representing the potential tying run.

Wednesday’s clash with Oak Grove was CHS’ second attempt at claiming a district championship in the three most-recent seasons (2020 was erased by COVID-19 issues). In 2017, the Hornets lost the title game to Lafayette at St. Joseph.