May 18—Just when Verdigris looked on the verge of pulling away, Heritage Hall flipped the proverbial switch.
The Cardinals led by four after a six-run fourth inning, but the Chargers regrouped to score the game's next nine runs and deny Verdigris its seventh state title on the way to a 12-10 victory in the Class 4A state championship Saturday at Shawnee High School. The championship is Heritage Hall baseball's first since 2016.
"Coming into this, we had to replace seven starters and our top-five arms," Verdigris coach Brian Keith said. "I didn't know what was going to happen with this team this year, but back in the fall when we first started, the expectations were still there. But I just didn't know if this team could compete, especially at the 4A level, being so young. I've had a lot of good teams, but this team here had a lot of fight in them, and they were a bunch of grinders that would get after you. We came up a little short in the championship game against a really good Heritage Hall baseball team, but these kids fought hard all year long, and I think they overachieved a little bit."
The Cardinals (27-10) trailed 3-1 after three innings, but things took a turn for the better in the fourth.
Charger pitchers Gray Thomas and Carson Beam combined to hit four batters during the frame, putting Verdigris runners in scoring position and allowing Aaron Buntin (single), Ty Gladu (sacrifice bunt) and Jax Ryan (double) to drive in four runs.
A hit by pitch with bases loaded and a balk accounted for the other two runs, giving the Cardinals a 7-3 lead.
"I still was not comfortable because I knew how good Heritage Hall was," Keith said. "They've got three D-I guys in their lineup, and they're probably the most impressive kids I've seen all year long. I think they can compete at any level with the talent they have."
Heritage Hall (29-5) answered with a fury, though.
Austin Lemon scored Colby Lewis with a double to center field to make it 7-4, and the game was tied shortly after that thanks to a bases-loaded walk, a passed ball and a sac fly from Bowen Bridges.
Then came the dagger.
Nick Keith opened the bottom of the fifth with a solo home run to left field to break the tie and give Heritage Hall the lead for good, and it added four more runs on two bases-loaded walks and a 2-RBI double from Jackson Jobe, who is one of the top prospects for the upcoming MLB Draft.
Just like that, a 7-4 lead turned into a 12-7 deficit.
"We gave up some barrels in that inning; gave up some hits," Brian Keith said. "And we walked a few. Defensively we were superb, we just had a hard time missing barrels and put on too many runners. It just got away from us, and we had a valiant effort in the seventh to try and come back. We just didn't get the hits at the right time."
Verdigris made a push in the seventh, scoring on an error and two hit-by-pitches after loading the bases, but consecutive pop outs brought the season to an unfortunate end.
Ryan led the Cardinals at the plate, finishing with two of the team's five hits. Both hits were doubles. Reese Roller took the loss, surrendering eight hits, eight runs and four walks while striking out one on 76 pitches through four innings. Gladu, Logan Hall and Luke Patterson saw time on the mound as well.
The Chargers notched 11 hits, with four players finishing with two hits apiece.
Heritage Hall threw four pitchers, but Thomas earned the victory with six strikeouts on 87 pitches through 3.1 innings, allowing two hits, four runs and four walks.
The Chargers scored a run in each of the first three innings via a Brigham Evans single, a Thomas groundout and a Tyler Offel sac fly. Verdigris broke up those runs in the third when Roller scored on an error.
Although the Cardinals came up short of adding a state championship to their 2021 resume, they reached 27 wins, had an undefeated mark of 12-0 in District 4A-7 and beat two teams with 30-plus wins — Tuttle (35) and Fort Gibson (33) — in the state tournament.
All-District honors were recently revealed, and several Verdigris players earned recognition for their standout seasons.
Jax Ryan was named Player of the Year, and Jaren Keith was dubbed the Offensive Player of the Year while Cody Bressie, Evan Anderson, Reese Roller and Luke Zaferes were all placed on the All-District team.
"Those two, Jax and Jaren, led us in hitting all year long and were both good players for us," Brian Keith said. "Jaren was our only senior, and it's just unfortunate he couldn't end his career with a state title, but we were on the cusp of it and came up a little bit short. The rest of those guys were well-deserving of an all-district award, and there were some other guys I wish I could've gotten on that list because I probably had eight or nine who were really good for us."
Fortunately for Verdigris, the likelihood of this postseason run being a one-time experience is low.
The Cardinals return the entire bull pen and lineup except for Jaren Keith. This was a fairly inexperienced group, which is a promising sign for the program moving forward.
However, Brian Keith isn't going to prematurely crown his upcoming teams as champions.
"It's just going to get tougher," Brian Keith said. "Our culture is our culture, and we've got expectations and have had a lot of success. Everybody knows about Verdigris baseball, and the kids who have been in this program have set the program where it's at right now. Everybody is going to be coming for us, and we know that. We'll get back to work here in a week when we start summer league, and baseball is a funny game because you never know what is going to happen. If you had told me at the beginning of the year that we'd be playing in the state championship, I probably would've laughed at you. This was a very young and inexperienced team, and I had one guy on this team that experienced a state-tournament atmosphere.
"Being in that moment is a little different for a high school kid."