Through nine games, the North Callaway Thunderbirds hadn't been challenged much. A 3-1 win at Blair Oaks and a 7-6, come-from-behind victory at Fulton had been more the exception than the rule in North Callaway's unprecedented 9-0 start to the season.
The Thunderbirds, down to Hallsville 5-2 through four innings, looked like what might have happened to the team that got down 6-0 to Fulton if it hadn't ralled. But a big fifth inning led to North Callaway looking like the team that put up seven unanswered runs against the Hornets.
The Thunderbirds - again - scored seven unanswered runs and made the best of shaky pitching in getting a 9-5 win over Hallsville in the first game of pool play in the Montgomery County Tournament on Thursday night.
"We need to be in games like this; Hallsville is a good baseball program and I'm proud of how the kids came together and kept battling," North Callaway head coach Kevin O'Neal said.
In moving to 10-0, the Thunderbirds found a way to get out of their own way. After trading two runs apiece through three innings, Hallsville jumped on North Callaway sophomore starter Justin Murphy in the top half of the fourth.
The Indians - who lost to North Callaway 9-2 in a Mid-Missouri Conference game at Hallsville just eight days ago - scored three runs on two hits in taking a 5-2 lead Thursday night. Murphy hit Indians senior second baseman Zach Wehmeyer, then issued back-to-back walks to sophomore third baseman Wes Calvert and senior shortstop Garrett Strodtman to load the bases.
Wehmeyer scored when senior first baseman Justin Smith reached on an error. Strodtman and Calvert then came home on a one-out double to deep right by junior catcher Luke Hartman that was just inches from being a home run.
Smith was gunned out at home on the play by Thunderbirds senior right fielder Collin Brinker. Hartman was then nailed at the plate on a heave from senior center fielder Grant Cundiff following a double by Hallsville senior starting pitcher Cody Reno.
Murphy worked four innings, striking out three, walking three and giving up six earned runs. But with this being a tournament format, O'Neal stuck with the right-hander and it paid off with Murphy - who went 2-for-2 with a run and the game's final RBI - ending up as the winning pitcher.
"I wanted to stretch him out a little bit and I felt like he did a good job of working out of a couple of tough situations," O'Neal said.
After a three-run top of the fourth by Hallsville, North Callaway jabbed back with a four-run bottom of the inning. Murphy started it by drawing a leadoff four-pitch walk and then scoring on a double down the third-base line by senior left fielder Logan Nichols.
Senior catcher Zak Kee - who went 2-for-3 with three RBI and three runs scored - had his biggest hit of the game on the next pitch from Hallsville senior reliever Jacob Wooten. Kee drove the offering to deep right for a bases-clearing triple to score Nichols and junior third baseman Matthew Popp to tie the game 5-5.
Junior shortstop Zach Lavy blasted Wooten's next pitch toward shortstop but it couldn't be corralled in time as Lavy reached on the error. Kee raced home on the play to put the Thunderbirds up for the first time at 6-5.
Wooten lasted just a third of an inning, facing eight batters while giving up four runs on three hits and walking a batter.
"We always talk about how we need to focus in and have good at-bats, and I can't tell you how proud I am of these kids and they're doing a great job," O'Neal said.
Lavy, the team's leading hitter, went 2-for-4 with three RBI, including a first-inning solo home run to right. He also got the save for the Thunderbirds, pitching two innings, giving up two hits while walking three and striking out two.
"Zach's just a solid baseball player and he's been that way for us all season and he's definitely the leader of this team," O'Neal said. "He puts us on his shoulders sometimes and that's awesome to have that."
Lavy didn't make it easy, though. He allowed runners to board the corners with two out in the fifth before a pop fly by Calvert ended the inning. He then had runners at first and second with two out in the sixth before ending the threat with a strikeout of Hallsville senior left fielder Damien Stone.
"We talk about coming out and playing good baseball the best we know how and I think the kids have done that all year so far," O'Neal said.
AUXVASSE - The Bulldogs scored four runs in the top half of the third inning and held on for a one-run win over the Indians in the first round of pool play at the Montgomery County Tournament earlier Thursday night.
The win, their second straight, improved the Bulldogs to 6-3 on the season.
South Callaway only got four hits, led by junior shortstop Hunter Leeper's 2-for-2 effort. Leeper scored a run and stole two bases for the Bulldogs. Junior center fielder Ben Seitz and junior first baseman Konrad Kemper each had a hit, a stolen base and a run for the South Callaway.
Freshman pitcher Zach Marty threw three innings of relief, allowing one run on four hits and striking out a pair in getting the win. Freshman Smith Kemper pitched two-thirds of an inning to get credit for the save.
South Callaway and North Callaway played each other in the final game of pool play late Thursday night. Results were not available at press time.
In pool play at Montgomery City on Thursday night, host Montgomery County, Mark Twain and Winfield squared off against each other.
The consolation (11 a.m.), third-place (1 p.m.) and championship (3 p.m.) games are scheduled to be played at Montgomery City on Saturday.