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STATE BASEBALL: Liberal falls short against defending champion St. Elizabeth

Brock Sisney

LIBERAL, Mo. — The Liberal Bulldogs, who averaged 10.2 runs scored their first 30 games this season, jumped out to an early 4-2 lead Wednesday against the defending state champion St. Elizabeth Hornets in a Class 1 state quarterfinal at Brown Percy Memorial Ball Park.

Liberal, officially the visiting team and batting first, scored two runs in the first and two in the second and drove St. Elizabeth senior pitcher Caleb Oligschlaeger’s pitch count up to 50 after two innings.

However, four Liberal pitchers combined to walk 10 St. Elizabeth batters and Oligschlaeger settled down and retired 10 straight Liberal batters to cap off a complete game performance, and the Hornets erased their two-run deficit with one run in the fifth and three in the sixth to earn a 6-4 win and their fifth straight appearance in the Class 1 Final Four.

“I’ve said all year that we don’t really have a true No. 1,” Liberal coach Travis Walton said. “Justin Payne would be called our No. 1, but after that, you never know what you’re going to get with each one. They’re all just as equally talented, and I know some guys struggled (Wednesday) but I hope they don’t shoulder that loss.

“I was so proud of Kole Wiles coming in, he’s a 15-year-old sophomore, I know he doesn’t look like a sophomore, he’s huge, but he struggled spotting up a lot this season. Today, he went out there and commanded against a state-caliber team and kept us right there in the ballgame and gave us a chance. Honestly, he probably could have got us out of that sixth inning, but a few plays didn’t go our way. I thought he pitched phenomenal, and I hope that he carries that confidence level over into next year because I think he’s going to be a stud.”

The Bulldogs scored all four of their runs with two outs — senior Payton Morrow opened the scoring with a solo home run to right and they scored their next three runs with the help of two St. Elizabeth errors, one fielding and one throwing.

Liberal collected eight hits through four innings against Oligschlaeger and the Hornets, but their defense improved and Oligschlaeger strengthened over the last three innings.

“I feel like all game we hit the ball,” Walton said. “We just barreled it up right to them and they made plays. That’s what I told the kids. I think it might have been the fourth inning, but we got out on three barrels. We barreled up three times and they just made the play. We told them to keep finding barrels and you’re going to score.

“That’s been our strength all year, barreling up the ball. We took the small ball game out of our lineup because we hit it so well. Before this game, I think we had a .379 batting average. We play a tough schedule. We don’t play a bunch of Class 1 schools. We play Class 2, Class 3, and a couple Class 4 schools. We hit it well, our on-base percentage is over .500, and they do a good job with their approaches and their at-bats.”

St. Elizabeth junior third baseman Isaac Green made a couple stellar defensive plays in the fourth, catching a Chase Ray line drive for one out and stopping a hard-hit Nathan Smith grounder and throwing him out from the knees to end the inning and preserve the 4-2 score.

Liberal starter Ray struggled to find the zone and walked all three batters he faced without throwing a strike.

Wiles came on for Ray and walked the first two batters he faced, but the sophomore southpaw settled in and found a groove with four scoreless innings of work.

St. Elizabeth cut the deficit to 4-3 after plating one in the fifth: Wiles walked Oligschlaeger and Green and surrendered a single to Jace Kesel to load the bases with Hornets. Gavin Williams scored Oligschlaeger with a single to left, but Wiles worked his way out with the bases loaded and retired the Hornets with two straight balls caught by shortstop Payne.

Levi Holtmeyer reached on an error and worked his way around for a tie score, beating a throw home on a fielder’s choice, and the Hornets scored for the third time on a walk with the bases loaded and Williams’ second RBI single closed out the scoring.

Wiles, Brodie Wilson, and Matt Boehne pitched for the Bulldogs in the sixth.

Liberal, who scored 28 runs in games against Osceola (March 28) and Midway (April 24) and scored 144 runs over a 10-game stretch in late April and early May, finished with a 19-12 overall record and the Bulldogs repeated as district champions and won their third district title in their last four seasons.

The Bulldogs were attempting to make their first Final Four since their 2011 team finished second place in Class 1.

“This was a fun group,” Walton said. “I knew early in the year that it was going to be fun, whenever we had a couple of our top seniors that were hurt, and we went into Butler (March 31) and lost a tough game. They’re a Class 3 school, we’re a Class 1 school, and we lost 7-6 on a walk-off.

“We expected to win, and I feel like that’s the way we stepped on the field every night. Their fight, their resilience, I mean it would be easy, St. Elizabeth’s played in the state championship four years in a row, and these kids knew that. It would have been easy to be intimidated, and we weren’t intimidated at all. I think we showed that early.”

Liberal seniors Boehne, Morrow, Ray, and Smith played their final HS game Wednesday.

“A lot of it is just leadership,” Walton said. “Last year, we had 10 kids go out for baseball. It would have been easy for them to get complacent, and they came out here and work hard every day. They do all the little things we always preach, and they believe in what we’re trying to do. When the top half believes and does all those little things that you expect from them, I feel like that filters down and I hope that carries on through our program.

“They’re good kids. They’re good baseball players. Two of them are going on to play college baseball and they’re going to do great things. The other two are great kids. Chase, Matt, Nate, and Payton, I just talked with them out there in the huddle. I had them in not only baseball but basketball, so we spent the last six months together. I’m going to miss those four. They’re a big reason why we got to where we are, and I hope our younger guys carry what they started on this foundation, and we make our program get to a consistent level.”


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