If you missed the Morgan County vs Pace Academy baseball series this past week, you are probably kicking yourself right about now. It was, unquestionably, one of the great comebacks in Diamond Dog history as they took down the Knights in a best-of-three series to advance to the Elite Eight for only the third time in school history. According to local historians, the only two teams to advance this far were the 1980 and 1997 teams. The 1980 squad went to the Final Four, eventually losing to State Champions Lee County and the 1997 group fell in the Elite Eight to Cook County. The 1997 team featured local athletes Stephen McClain, Shane Seabolt, Andrew Ainslie, Merritt Ainslie, Eric Freeman, Joey Lancaster, Josh Whetzel, Brad Hawk, Adam Elwer, Wade Whitaker, Chad MClain, Danny Tillery, Adam Hawk, and Chris Stratton. The team was coached by Allen Crowley and David Willson.
After game one of the series things did not look good for the Dogs. They took a 19-4, three-inning, game-shortened mercy rule shellacking from Pace that put a sick feeling in the stomachs of the Bulldog faithful. However, that feeling was short-lived as MOCO roared back to take game two in 4-1 fashion before polishing off the Knights in an exciting game three 9-7.
So, how did they do it? A lot of credit has to go to the coaching staff and Merritt Ainslie for instilling some confidence in their team between those first two games. They had their backs against the wall, that’s for sure, now having to win two straight. More credit goes to the players for believing in themselves and lacing up their cleats extra tight for the test. Bottom line. The Dogs pitching staff of Ethan Stamps and Jacob Anderson have to be given a ton of credit for going out on the mound and pitching their guts out in the final two games. The dynamic duo not only got the wins, but contributed mightily at the plate in the victories.
Game one left everyone from Morgan County in shock. Pace laced line drives, drove balls deep into the gaps and over the fence as they scored in all three innings. They took a 3-0 lead after the first inning that started with the first two batters hitting identical lasers up the middle. Morgan didn’t help its own cause with uncharacteristic plays in the inning and throughout the game. An error and passed ball in the first helped aid Pace to the three run lead.
The Dogs hit the ball hard, but right at the defense in the first. Morgan got caught stealing, and could have scored after Hunter Lane burned the centerfielder for a double. He was stranded on second and Morgan came away empty handed.
The next two innings were nightmarish for MOCO. Pace scored eight runs in both the second and third innings as they sent 25 batters to the plate over that span. A leadoff homerun in the second got things started and it just snowballed out of control. Morgan again made some untimely errors to keep things alive for the Knights. It was a tough game out there for Morgan’s ace on the mound and the Dogs in general.
Highlights for the Dogs came in a four-run second inning. After Grant Cofer walked to lead off the inning, Blake Silvey got hit by a pitch. This brought up second baseman Hunter Christian who sent a fastball deep over the left field fence for three runs. The very next batter, Ethan Stamps, ripped a first-pitch homer to left for the final run of the game for the Dogs.
Then came the reset. New life. It was like night and day. Stamps went out in game two for MOCO and put on a pitching clinic. In the complete game, he struck out 12, gave up only two very weak hits that had eyes, and hit three batters while walking another. Let’s just say he was keeping them loose up there. The sophomore sensation also fielded his position well. He made a bare-handed play on a bunt to just nip the runner at first in the second inning to get the leadoff batter. To top it off, Stamps hit a two-RBI bomb to center in the fifth inning to break open a 1-0 game. It’s rumored that after the game he drug the infield, swept out the dugout, and washed the team’s uniforms.
In the second game, the Dogs struck first, but it wasn’t until the fourth inning. Jaron Ferguson drew a walk to start the inning and stole second. The errant throw from the catcher got away from the infielders and allowed him to move to third on the error. Grant Cofer, who had a solid series at the plate, promptly doubled off the centerfield fence on a near-miss homer for the RBI and the lead. Cofer’s pinch runner was picked off at second for the third out. The lead pumped Stamps up even more as he struck out the side after hitting the first batter of the inning.
It was in the fifth that Stamps put one in the pine trees beyond the centerfield fence on a ball that was gone when it left the bat. This gave the Dogs a 3-0 advantage and plenty of confidence now that they could play with these guys.
The Dogs added one more run in the sixth when Ferguson ripped a fastball down the left field line that found paydirt. It was his second run scored of the game, and the Dogs had just three outs left for the win.
It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. After a leadoff single by Pace, the next batter hit a bloop single that found daylight between the defense to put runners on first and second. A balk was followed by a passed ball to give the Knights a little life. Stamps struck out two of the final four hitters and got a weak fly ball to short for the win.
It was on to the rubber match and game three the next day. It was another beautiful day for baseball and Morgan took full advantage. Uncharacteristically, after Pace won the coin toss for the home team, they chose to be the visitors instead of the home team. Now it was Anderson’s turn on the mound and did he ever pitch a gem. The workhorse pitched the maximum number of pitches the GHSA allows for a playoff series (120) and was simply gassed when he left the mound in the seventh inning with one out. He got a standing ovation from the crowd for his work. The junior struck out eight, walked five (two in the seventh), and gave up only five hits when he gave way to reliever Blake Silvey. He also tripled in the fourth inning with the bases loaded to break the game open and drive in three runs to help his own cause.
The Dogs drew first blood in the first inning. Stamps led off the inning and was hit by a pitch. Ferguson then got his second homerun of the series. In a great at-bat, the speedy centerfielder fouled off five pitches with two strikes before blasting a shot over the left field fence to give the Dogs a 2-0 lead. Morgan scored another run in the second. Designated hitter Silvey got things going with a leadoff double rope to the right centerfield gap. He later scored on an RBI single by Stamps for the 3-0 advantage.
Pace closed the gap in the third inning on an unearned run that Morgan gave away. A walk and two errors allowed them to close the gap to 3-1. Cofer came up big again in the bottom half of the inning with a solo homer to centerfield. This one looked like a Tiger Woods one-iron shot that got out of there in a hurry. It was a missile. One fan close by said, “That one needed a stewardess on it.” This gave the Dogs a 4-1 lead.
Pace kept fighting back. They put two runs on the board in the fourth inning. After a single and a Bulldog error, Pace lifted a fly ball to right that Trey Patterson picked up on the run. His perfect throw to catcher Dominic Arienzo at the plate was on the money, but the umpire called him safe. Ainslie argued the call to no avail. It was now 4-3 and the game was on.
The breakout inning for the Dogs came in the fourth. Pace brought in a lefty reliever and Morgan took advantage. Arienzo led off the inning with a double to the right field gap. Pinch runner Tristan Stapp later scored on a wild pitch. Morgan loaded the bases after Stamps drew an intentional walk, Ferguson reached on a catcher interference play, and Lane drew a walk in a great at-bat. With two outs and Cofer at the plate, an unusual play gave the Dogs new life. Cofer struck out, but the ball got away from the Pace catcher. Before he could corral the passed ball, all runners advanced and a run scored. That’s when Anderson came up with his triple down the right field line to drive in three runs and give the Dogs a 9-3 lead with nine outs to go.
Pace cut into the lead with a single run in the sixth after a single and double. It was obvious that Anderson was tiring quickly, but MOCO still held a four-run lead at 9-4. The Knights didn’t quit. They gave the Dogs a scare in the top of the seventh by scoring three runs before Silvey came in for the save. He didn’t throw a single curve over the final two outs. The first batter doubled to drive in two runs, but the big righthander settled in after that. He gave up a bloop single that Anderson, who had moved to left field, almost made an amazing diving catch on. It popped out of his glove and the lead had dwindled to 9-7. Silvey quickly disposed of the next two batters with a grounder to second and a popup to third. It was a comeback series for the ages.
Coach Merritt Ainslie made these comments. “I thought there were two at-bats in the series that gave us the push we needed to get it done. Ethan’s homerun in game two and Jacob Anderson’s triple after the third strike passed ball on Grant were big for us. I also thought that Blake was huge in game three. He came into a pressure situation and he did exactly what we needed him to do. He threw strikes and showed that the moment was not too big for him. He may have been nervous internally, but he certainly didn’t show it externally which gives us confidence that he can perform in that situation. He has a nice skill set and a solid bat. This is just one more role he can fill for us down the stretch. I’m proud of him.
The biggest thing I challenged them about after game one was to refocus. I also threw out a challenge to Ethan and he responded. He thrives in those tough situations as we’ve seen him do it now for two years. It was the same for Jacob. I just told him it was his turn. They both knew it was special and how big it was. They’re both gamers that weren’t going to let their teammates down. We’ve got one of the best two-three punches in the state. They had to show up on the biggest stage and they did.
After that first game, I felt like we could hit them. Hunter (Christian) and Ethan both homered and we hit the ball hard but it was right at them. We simply outperformed them on the mound and at the plate the final two games.
The community really came out and supported us. There were people there that had never been to a high school baseball game. Some of them came up to me afterwards and were just excited to be coming back next week.”
Ainslie described Pike County as similar to Morgan County; somewhat of a mirror image. It’s a public school with coaches that came through the Pike County school system. They have a great feeder system that encompasses second grade through middle school and are consistent year-in and year-out because of that. Pike should be very solid with good pitching. He said, “They will be very tough; as good or better that Pace.” Pike and Jackson are two of the better teams in the state with Jackson holding the number one slot for a short time. Pike edged out Jackson for the Region Championship.
Some of the key players weighed in on the Pace series and the upcoming series with Pike County.
Ethan Stamps: “It feels good going to the Elite Eight and our team has been working hard. If we keep that up and make all the fundamental plays we will be fine. In the Pace series, we made a lot of errors in the first game and got blown out, but our guys kept their head up and kept playing hard. We didn’t let the first game bother us the rest of the series like a lot of teams would.”
Grant Cofer: “I feel we are pitching and hitting as well as anyone in the state right now. If we continue to do that, we can be unstoppable. We showed that in the Pace series with what happened in the first game and that we can fight and win no matter what.”
Jaron Ferguson: “I’m proud of my teammates for staying in it after the first game. Most teams would give up after being blown out like that, but we aren’t most teams. We are going to fight from the first pitch to the last, and I’m glad our coaches made sure of that.”
Dominic Arienzo: “The atmosphere at the game on Friday was a crazy feeling. It was the best feeling I have had all year. Everyone on the team was into that game and was ready for any obstacle. We all fought and we ended up pulling out the win. Everyone contributed to the win and I’m looking forward to the series with Pike County.”
Blake Silvey: “I wouldn’t want to play for any other team. These guys are my brothers. We fight back when situations get hard and execute when we need to. This team has everything to make it all the way and we’re gonna fight till the very end.”
To take on another private school like Pace that has been the demise of many a Morgan County playoff team over the years, to win it like they did, and advance to the Elite Eight; it just doesn’t get any sweeter than that.
The Dogs will now take on Pike County Wednesday, May 9 in a doubleheader at Tracy Brown Field. Start time is 4:30 for game one and two. Game three, if needed, will be played on Thursday at 5:00. A win in this one will propel Morgan into the Final Four for the first time in 38 years! Sic ‘em Dogs. You don’t want to miss it.