The dog pound howled at a decibel level you could hear out on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway.
The Jesuit dugout, always the life of the party, shook its chain link fence with a verbal ferocity that the South Salem pitcher could feel and that the jam-packed pro-Crusader crowd could pick up on.
The Crusaders are talented enough as is with future collegiate players littered up and down the roster. But what differentiates this Jesuit club, what makes opponents crumble in the clutch is its fox hole of thundering, jabbering, squawking mobsters who can infiltrate a pitcher's mind and combust an opponent's mettle with their incessant energy.
When it's raucous and wild in the dugout, Jesuit is unbeatable. When the spirit is high, the Crusaders can't fail. And so, in the bottom of the eighth in the Class 6A semifinals against South Salem, with the dugout jumping, the score tied 2-2, the ultra-clutch Joe Angeli at the plate and Conor O'Reilly on second base representing the winning run, the Crusaders' mojo came through again. Angeli punched a single to right that nearly hit Kevin Blair on its way to the outfield. O'Reilly, running all the way, scored sliding head first, jumped up and stomped on home plate again, giving Jesuit a 3-2 win and a berth in the 6A title game.
"When it gets rowdy (in the dugout) it's tough to play here," O'Reilly said. "We're just some dogs. We stick with each other through all seven innings or more and play our game. We start strong, we finish strong. We don't give up, ever. I knew if Joe relaxed and just swung the bat good things would happen."
With one out in the eighth O'Reilly came off the bench in the eighth, singled on a hard line drive to the Saxon shortstop and beat the throw to first with his speed. Then Blair bagged his third base hit of the game with a single to center that moved O'Reilly to second. That brought up Angeli, one of the state's leaders in RBIs, who's come up huge in tight situations seemingly all season long.
"It's trust," Angeli said. "We have so much trust in one another. I wouldn't say anybody doubted us, but we've improved so much since the start of the season. We have complete confidence in everyone."
Jesuit will play Central Catholic on Saturday at Salem-Keizer Volcanoe Stadium at 1:30 p.m. The Crusaders beat the Rams 6-2 in the fourth game of the season, a contest in which right-hander Mick Abel started and starred in. Abel, who pitched all seven innings in Jesuit's 5-1 quarterfinal win over Beaverton, figures to get the ball again in the state final with a full week's worth of rest. Central is a vastly different team than the one Jesuit beat nine weeks ago. Ranked 15th in the 6A bracket, the Rams beat Tualatin handily, then upset No. 2 Century, No. 7 Lakeridge and No. 3 Clackamas in succession to reach the state title bout. Top-ranked Jesuit has arguably the best talent in the state and an ace in Abel who was made for the big stage. Not only have the established stars such as Abel, Ethan Wilson, James Porter and Will Spitznagel lived up to the billing, but guys like Angeli, O'Reilly, Sean Murphy, Kevin Blair and Josh Daul have stepped up huge over the course of the season in various roles ranging from clutch hits, to eye-popping run production to closing out games as Daul as done from the midway point of the year on. Jesuit will the favorite going into the state title, a team that could go wire-to-wire as the best in 6A.
"If we play our best baseball, I don't think anybody can beat us," O'Reilly said. "All we can do is play seven innings of our game. We just have to show up and play our best."
Teams with leaky chemistry don't rock a dugout rooting for their teammates. Squads that are all about themselves and their own personal stats sit on the bench and sulk when games don't go their way. Jesuit is truly a 25-member republic that refers to themselves as the BDE fraternity house without the rushing or matching brand tattoos. The Crusaders' cohesion is deep and undeniable from Abel down the line to the rarely used comrades who play just as big of a role as the starters with their riotous ethos in the dugout. When one guy gets out or makes a mistake, his brothers are there at the front of the dog pound ready to bring their comrade back into the fold. Jesuit is downright tribal in its team beliefs, which manifests itself when an opposing pitcher goes off the rails.
"If someone comes in hanging their heads, trying to bring down the energy, we don't tell them they'll get them next time, we make sure we call them out," Daul said. "We tell them to knock it off, get back in the game and get the next play."
Against Beaverton, for example, O'Reilly (who is the captain of the dog pound) and company yelled out how many balls the Beaver starting pitcher threw in a row. The count mounted to five before the Beaverton righty finally threw a strike, turned toward the dugout and stared a dagger into the Crusader dugout, which only incited the Jesuit mob even more.
"Then somebody yelled 'Five minus one equals ball four,'" Angeli said with a laugh. "Then he threw three more balls and walked the kid. Whenever a pitcher looks at us like that, we know that we've won."
Nevermore was that tried and true kinship put to the test than in the bottom of the sixth inning with Jesuit trailing 2-1. Spitznagel singled and Campbell Brandt walked with one out, then Kellar McCarthy reached on an error. And Blair came up big, singling on a line drive to left to even the game up at 2-2. Spitznagel scored and so did Brandt, at first glance. Yet, as the action ceased, South Salem told their catcher to touch home plate again, believing Brandt never touched the dish. The Saxons did as such and the home plate umpire balled up his right fist and gently punched the air, signaling Brandt was out. Appeals are rarely granted by umpiring crews, yet somehow South Salem was able to litigate its way back to a 2-2 tie.
With runners in scoring position, Angeli hit a single to right, but McCarthy was gunned down at the plate for the second out. Suddenly, Jesuit's lead was gone going into the seventh. The momentum, of the blue, was back with the Saxons, for a moment.
Thankfully for Jesuit, Daul was there to slam the door shut. The right-handed closer, who took on the role halfway through the season at the urging of head coach Colin Griffin, came in for starter Ethan Wilson retired six straight hitters from the top of the seventh inning on. He and Wilson were both terrific on the mound, giving up just six hits combined. Wilson walked with the bases loaded in the bottom of the first to give Jesuit a 1-0 lead. Then the Saxons struck in the top of the second, scoring twice on consecutive hits to take a 2-1 advantage, one that lasted until the bottom of the sixth.
Wilson went five and a third innings, allowing two runs on five hits and striking out eight Daul got the win. He lasted two and two-thirds innings, allowing one hit and zero runs while striking out six and walking zero.
"This wasn't going to be my last game of the season," Daul said.
"He's the best closer in the state," O'Reilly said. "I've never seen Josh shut down a team like that. He was just pounding the zone."
Angeli and Blair both had three hits apiece with Angeli picking up two RBIs.