STILLMAN VALLEY – A fast start and a strong finish are what the Newman Comets should remember about Thursday's Class 2A Stillman Valley Regional semifinal.
The rest in between, they'd rather forget.
Newman scored three runs in the first two innings, then didn't manage another hit until the sixth inning. By that time, Stillman Valley had a six-run lead thanks to an eight-run inning, and the Comets' seventh-inning rally came up short in a 9-5 loss.
"We came in aggressive, which is what we lacked early in games all year," Newman junior Trevor Bolin said. "The first two innings, we did a great job … then we got complacent, and when you do that, things happen like they did today."
The Comets (15-10) scored two runs in the first when Dillan Heffelfinger and Alex Buhler scored on back-to-back grounders under the first baseman's glove. They scratched across another run in the second when Elias Edmondson reached on a fielding error by the shortstop, then scored on a throwing error by the shortstop.
But those singles by Heffelfinger and Buhler in the first three batters were the only hits the Comets could muster until Edmondson's two-out single in the sixth. Stillman starter Connor McNames (3-4) settled in after the rough start by his defense, striking out seven and walking two in 6 1/3 innings of five-hit ball.
Efficiency was the name of McNames' game. The senior had five innings where he threw 12 pitches or fewer, and 63 of his 94 pitches were strikes.
"I knew I still had to trust my defense, just focus on the next batter," McNames said. "I kept the pitches low and away, and definitely felt a lot better and relaxed a lot more after that big third inning."
That's when it all fell apart for Newman. The Cardinals (8-18) sent 12 batters to the plate, and eight of them scored. Four came in on RBI singles, two more on a fielding error at first base, and Stillman added an RBI groundout and also scored on a wild pitch.
Seven different Cardinals scored – Logan Byers crossed home plate twice – and finally chased Newman starter Quincy Coomes (6-3) after two hit batsmen, the aforementioned error, and the last RBI single. Only four of the nine runs Coomes allowed were earned.
"We talked before the game about avoiding a big blow-up inning," Newman coach Tom Wilson said, "and the third inning definitely did us in. That's a quality team, and they took advantage of what we gave them.
"I probably left Quincy out there a few batters too long, because they started sitting on his fastball, and his changeup was basically the same pitch at that point. But give them credit, because they made the most of that inning."
Wilson turned to Bolin, who did his job by keeping the Cardinals off the scoreboard the rest of the way. He struck out seven and served up one intentional walk in 4 1/3 shutout innings, allowing two hits.
"I came in and knew I had to close the door," Bolin said, "just do whatever I could to get outs and keep them from scoring any more runs. I just wanted to give us the best chance to come back and win."
Neither offense did much for the next few innings, but Newman started to figure out McNames in the bottom of the seventh. Buhler doubled down the right-field line with one out, then scored on Shayne Allen's triple even deeper into the right-field corner.
After Allen contorted his body beautifully to avoid being tagged out at third after oversliding the base on the triple, McNames was relieved by Parker Madeen, who promptly gave up Michael Ely's RBI groundout to short. Brandon Burke kept the Comet hopes alive with a sharp two-out hit to left, but Madeen closed it out by inducing a grounder to third.
"We waited too long to rally," Bolin said. "If we could have started that a couple of innings earlier, not waited until our last life, maybe things are different."
Class 2A Stillman Valley Regional semifinal
Stillman Valley 9, Newman 5
Star of the game: Connor McNames, Stillman, 6 1/3 IP, 5 R, 2 ER, 5 H, 7 SO, 2 BB; also had three hits, RBI, run scored
Key performers: Parker Madeen, Stillman, got final 2 outs on mound, also had 2 hits, 2 runs, RBI; Trevor Bolin, Newman, 4 1/3 shutout innings in relief, 2 H, 2 SO, 1 INT BB; Alex Buhler, Newman, 2 hits, 2B, 2 runs
Up next: 2A Stillman Valley Regional final, Byron vs. Stillman Valley, 11 a.m. Saturday