Will Koger made the final move on a gut-check day for Lakota East High School’s baseball team.
Locked in an all-out pitchers’ duel with Greater Miami Conference rival Fairfield, the Thunderhawks found a way to survive in Division I Cincinnati sectional play Thursday.
No. 9 hitter Sean Church led off the bottom of the eighth inning with a triple and Koger followed with a walkoff single to right field as third-seeded East celebrated a 2-1 victory.
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“Sometimes you’ve just got to gut one out,” Thunderhawks coach Ray Hamilton said. “These kids always show up and compete. There’s not been one day where we walked out of here thinking, ‘You know what? I didn’t get their best today.’ They show up with a purpose every single day.”
Nathan Haberthier and Aidan Talarek combined on a three-hitter with eight strikeouts for East (19-5). Talarek earned the win with 2.1 innings of perfect relief — he retired all seven batters he faced.
“We didn’t hit very well today, but as you saw, we’ve got great pitching,” said Koger, a junior shortstop. “Our guys are going to shut ’em down, we’re going to play good defense, and hopefully we can get the bats hot and make a run.”
The Thunderhawks will travel to Lebanon next Thursday for a 5 p.m. district semifinal against Loveland (17-9), the No. 8 seed.
Fairfield, meanwhile, is headed into the offseason and will lose 14 seniors to graduation. The 24th-seeded Indians finished 12-14, their first losing record since 2013.
“After this feeling passes, I think the thing I’m going to take from this is I love these guys,” Fairfield coach Tommy Begley said. “This has been one of those groups that’s been so much fun to coach, regardless of the record.
“You want to have a winning year every single year. You want to go out and win a GMC championship and go as deep in the tournament as you can. But when we reflect on it, it was just awesome to be around this group on a day-to-day basis. There weren’t any egos on this team.”
The Indians’ Tyler Morgan and Ryan Barker teamed up for a three-hitter of their own and totaled 11 strikeouts. Morgan went the first six innings, and Barker pitched a scoreless seventh before taking the loss.
Church’s triple down the right-field line nearly left the park for a walkoff homer. The ball barely eluded FHS right fielder Dashaun Vample.
“I wasn’t really thinking when I went up there. I kind of forgot everything,” said Church, a junior third baseman. “I just found a pitch and hit it. It was a great pitch, a fastball inside. I kind of lost it in the air when I hit it, but it hit the fence at the end.”
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“He’s been really, really good for us the last two weeks,” Hamilton said. “I’m happy for him because he went through a stretch where he couldn’t buy a hit.”
Koger slapped his game-winning single through Fairfield’s drawn-in infield.
“It’s a little bit nervous, but I know that if I don’t get my job (done), my teammates behind me (have) got me,” he said. “You’ve still got to touch first, but yeah, that was pretty sweet.”
“We brought the infield in and were hoping that we could find gold somehow and get out of that,” Begley said. “But the percentages of getting out of that are so low. That’s just what happens.”
Koger said Hamilton isn’t a fan of the term “launch angle,” but in this case, the LEHS coach was all for it.
“I was because I wanted a fly ball,” Hamilton said. “He’s the king of the launch angle.”
“He goes, ‘I’d really like a launch angle right now,’ ” Koger said. “He was telling me to elevate a ball. I tried to my first pitch, but I was under it. Then I think he spiked one in the dirt, and then I was able to hit a line drive past the second baseman and get the run in.”
East’s only hit before the last inning was Koger’s single in the sixth. Teammate Grayson Hamilton walked and scored on a wild pitch that inning to knot the contest at 1-1.
The Indians took a 1-0 lead in the fifth when freshman Colin Singer delivered a two-out RBI single to right field to score Trinidad Selvie. He was running for Ray Leugers, who doubled. Two Thunderhawks walked and got picked off in the bottom of the fifth.
Morgan, a left-hander, had nine strikeouts and five walks during his mound stint for Fairfield.
“Tyler Morgan’s dealt with so much adversity this year, and this was the best game he’s pitched all year,” Begley said. “I’m so proud of the way he threw. Honestly, I’m just so proud of the way this team played today. I think we gave them everything we had. That was the best game that I’ve been a part of in a long time.”
The two teams split during the GMC campaign.
“We beat ’em pretty handily here, but then down there, we had a rough game and lost in extra innings,” Koger said. “They walked off on us, so it was a bit of a revenge factor in addition to being the playoffs.”
Lakota East 000-001-01—2-3-0
WP — Aidan Talarek (5-1); LP — Ryan Barker (2-2). Records: F 12-14, L 19-5
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