(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
CHARLESTON -- Since taking over the Charleston program, Bluejays' head coach Michael Minner has had one thing on his mind: to bring home the first district title in school history.
Fittingly enough it was a group of seniors that have been with Minner through two near misses that helped him capture that coveted title Thursday afternoon in front of their home crowd in the Class 2, District 2 Tournament championship game.
Getting a stellar pitching performance from starting pitcher James Naile and some seventh inning heroics from fellow senior Hunter Dugan, the Bluejays were able to fight back from an early deficit to beat the Bloomfield Wildcats 2-1.
"This is the third district championship that this group had played for," Minner said of his seniors. "We finally got it done. I couldn't be prouder for the kids. They have put in so much time, not only during the high school season, but in the weight room and in the summers.
"This group is just extra special to me. Not just to me, but to the community this group will be extra special for ever. We set the standard today and we finally got the first one out of the way."
After contributing heavily to his team's surprising run at the title game, the Wildcats once again had turned to their ace Paul Fox to keep the Bluejays' potent offense at bay.
Successfully limiting to Charleston to only three scattered hits in the first five innings, Fox allowed his squad to cling to a slim 1-0 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth.
After an initial strikeout by the Bluejays No. 2 hitter, Naile, who had grounded out in his two previous at bats, stepped to the plate and lined a double, just out of reach from a diving left fielder to put the tying run in scoring position.
"I've been struggling a little bit at the plate," Naile said. "Paul did a good job on me all night so I was just looking.
"They were playing me back so I wanted to see if I could drop one in. Luckily it ended up being a double."
Following a passed ball that moved Naile to third, senior Ethan Browning hit a drive to deep center that allowed Naile to tag up before coming home to score.
"Up there with James 90 feet from home plate, the only thing on your mind is to get him in," said Browning. "I hit that ball, saw James tagging up and I just knew right then that we weren't done, we were going to come back and do what we had to do to win it."
Certainly not 'done' and with momentum swung their way, the Bluejays opened up the bottom of the seventh with a clutch hit from junior catcher and No. 6 hitter Michael Baugh. Hitting a grounder through the right side, Baugh was able to put the winning run on base with no outs before being replaced by courtesy runner Cole Byford.
Getting their biggest break of the game from the Wildcats' defense, Charleston was then able to move Byford over to third when Fox overthrew the second baseman trying to get the lead runner on a bunt attempt by Corey Adams.
Sending the Bluejays' fans in a roar, Hunter Dugan then stepped to the plate and lined a shot just inside the right field foul line to end the game with Byford crossing the plate.
"I was just trying to get a pitch I could hit where the defense wasn't," Dugan said of his walk off single. "I saw it was really close to the foul line and I was thinking I hoped it goes fair.
"Then I saw it was a hit and was excited."
Added Minner, "We talk about our seniors. Naile doubles and E-Bow drives in the tying run in the sixth. Then all sudden we have our legs back under us and another senior, Hunter Dugan, drives in the winning run.
"I couldn't be prouder for our kids. This is really surreal."
Ending the tournament with 15 1/3 innings under his belt in a span of five days, Naile picks up his third win of the postseason, allowing four hits and no walks while striking out eight in the championship game.
Coming into the Thursday's championship, Naile had already pitched a complete game shutout in the first round before coming in for the final 2 1/3 innings in the semifinals to close out the Bluejays 5-4 win over Greenville on Tuesday.
"What a job by James Naile," said Minner. "Just a gutsy performance after having to come in and throw a couple of innings the other day. He wasn't at full strength today. He didn't have his best stuff and he just gutted it out. He's just a winner."
Minner credits careful planning throughout the year for Naile's ability to stay fresh this late in the season.
"Throughout the year we threw him once a week so his arm stayed fresh. So today he gutted one out where, had we overused him throughout the regular season, he might not have been able to give us that effort."
On offense, Marshall Stallings and Baugh both had a pair of hits in the Bluejays seven hit effort.
"We started off not doing too well, but came back and battled," Baugh said of the win.
Taking the hard-luck loss, Fox faced a similar situation as Naile. Pitching a complete opening round game on Saturday, he came back to pick up a save in the Wildcats semifinal upset over Clearwater on Tuesday before taking the mound again in the championship.
Going all seven innings against the Bluejays, Fox gave up both earned runs on seven hits and no walks while striking out five.
"These three games he's been incredible," Bloomfield head coach Jason Karnes said. "He pitched amazing again today I thought. Hit his spots and just pitched really well.
"After pitching a complete game on Saturday, to come back and save it on Tuesday then to pitch the way his did today is a tremendous accomplishment for him. I'm extremely proud of him."
Making up all of Bloomfield's offense both sophomores Travis Phillips and Kyle Causey had a pair of singles each. Phillips first single, a line drive to left to start off the fourth led to the Wildcats' only run of the game.
With the win, Charleston now heads into uncharted territory as they move to sectionals to face the Malden Greenwave on Monday at 4 p.m.
Regardless of what happens from this point forward, Naile is just proud that his squad was able to make Bluejays' history.
"It is a good, good feeling to be the first team in Charleston history to ever do that," he said. "This group of seniors we have, we've really worked hard the past couple of years to get there. One group had to be the ones to do it and it's a great feeling."
Bloomfield 000 100 0 - 1 4 2
Charleston 000 001 1 - 2 7 0
WP -- James Naile. LP -- Paul Fox. 2B -- (C) James Naile.