Gladiators earn shot at state baseball title
GLADSTONE — Gladstone showered pitcher Ben McCoy with various substances after he pitched the Gladiators into the Class 4A championship Tuesday at Gladstone High.
First came sunflower seeds for McCoy, who had a complete game in the fourth-ranked Gladiators' 4-1 win over No. 9 Junction City.
Then it was infield dirt atop the brim of his hat, to a chorus of approval from teammates and the student section.
A pair of Gladiators concluded the celebration by dousing McCoy with water from a spray bottle.
"It's what I've had my plans set for since my freshman year," said McCoy, of pitching Gladstone to the state final. "I've always been looking forward to this one moment, and I'm glad I got to execute for my team."
Gladstone (21-8) will face No. 3 La Grande (21-3) at 10 a.m. Saturday at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer. After failing to qualify for the Oregon School Activities Association playoffs in 2016 and 2017, the Gladiators will bid for their first state championship.
Coach Casey Webster said the team began to jell during league play. Gladstone finished with a 14-1 record and first-place finish in the Tri-Valley Conference. Its momentum carried over into playoff wins over No. 20 Brookings-Harbor and No. 5 North Bend on Wednesday and Friday.
"We've worked hard day in and day out, and I think we're the team that can do it," McCoy said of winning a state title. "We've never done it at Gladstone and that's been our goal since we started playing baseball."
Sixteen of Gladstone's 17 players are upperclassmen. All five seniors were in Tuesday's starting lineup.
"We kind of saw them coming in eighth grade and freshman year," said Webster. "We've got five seniors who all contribute, plus my junior class is pretty solid."
In front of a raucous crowd, McCoy quieted a hot Junction City offense early. He opened the game with a strikeout and ended the first inning with a punchout to strand two.
The Tigers had scored 18 runs in their two playoff wins, including 11 in their three-run triumph over No. 1 Henley on Saturday.
McCoy, a senior right-hander and TVC pitcher of the year, kept Junction City off the board for three innings. In the fourth, Junction City used a walk and two hits to push across its lone run. McCoy halted the scoring threat by inducing a double play to end the inning.
With a fastball sitting in the low-80s, McCoy mixed in his curveball early because he "tries to pace himself, but when I get later in the game, I try to just let loose because there's not much game left."
Gladstone staked him to a 1-0 lead in the first on a two-out RBI single from second baseman Austin Conner. First baseman Derek Lee singled, advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored when Conner laced a fastball off the third-base bag and into left field.
After Junction City tied the game 1-1, Gladstone used a pair two-out RBI singles, from catcher Otis Lundgren and designated hitter Jackson Simmons, to reclaim the lead. Three of Gladstone's four runs came with two out.
"We've had some guys step up and get the big hits when we needed it, and today was no exception," Webster said. "We battled and got some runs across."
Gladstone added a run in the fifth off a sacrifice fly from shortstop Matthew Kuhn.
McCoy's velocity dipped in the later innings, but Webster said he was prepared to give him "a lot of leeway."?
McCoy worked around a double in the fifth and an error and a single in the sixth to keep Junction City off the board. A two-out single in the seventh brought coach Mark Rourke to the mound for a visit.
"He said, 'You're the guy, we believe in you, we don't need anyone to close it, and you're going to be the one to finish it for us,'" McCoy said of his conversation with Rourke.
McCoy ended the game by striking out the Tigers' No. 3 hitter on three pitches. He threw 97 pitches, striking out five against one walk and scattering seven hits.
Gladstone reached base 12 times and recorded eight hits, all singles.
Webster, who has coached for 27 years, said this team is one of the most talented he has seen.
"It's up at the top," he said. "I've had some good teams over my years (here), no question about it. This team, we can hit, we've got good speed, and we've got some pitching. When you have that, that helps.
"I'm just so excited for them. And the crowd today, unbelievable."
Players and coaches said the plan is to follow a normal practice routine heading into Saturday's championship game.
Webster said he wants the group to enjoy the moment but remember that reaching the finals is not their end goal.
"We've got good kids in this program. They stuck to the game plan, and the kids worked real hard," he said. "I'm so proud of them, but we're gonna go down there and finish it. That's the plan."