(Editor's note: The possibility of rain overnight and today in the Springfield area may affect the status of the Class 2 state championship game. For the most up-to-date information, visit the Missouri State High School Activities Association website - mshsaa.org)
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SPRINGFIELD - In a season of firsts for the South Callaway Bulldogs baseball team, it has a chance to play for one more: first place in the state.
South Callaway, appearing in its first-ever final four, toppled the No. 1-ranked Clever Blue Jays 5-2 on Wednesday night at Meador Park. With the victory, the Bulldogs (20-5) will play the Valle Catholic Warriors (23-5) for the Class 2 state title at 4 this afternoon.
Valle Catholic advanced with a 2-0 win over Summit Christian Academy in the other Class 2 semifinal Wednesday afternoon.
South Callaway - pushing its winning streak to eight games - received a spectacular pitching performance from senior starter Hunter Leeper. Leeper (4-3) went the distance, allowing two runs on just four hits while striking out 11 and walking none.
"I was hitting all my spots, off-speed was working, I'd say it's one of the better games I've pitched in my life," Leeper said afterward.
The two teams were scoreless through four innings before the Bulldogs finally broke through. They got a leadoff double from senior first baseman Jason Kimminau to start the fifth. After senior designated hitter Mitchell Williams struck out, senior center fielder Ben Seitz put South Callaway on the scoreboard. Seitz dropped a 2-0 pitch from Clever senior starter Jordan Burnett over the head of junior left fielder David DelToro for a triple to score Kimminau.
"The first one is the hardest one to get and it was our seven- and nine-hole hitters that did it, which speaks to our team," Bulldogs head coach Jared Wood said. "Every night, it is someone different and tonight they were our catalyst."
After Leeper was intentionally walked, the Bulldogs tried to catch the Blue Jays napping but it was to no avail. Freshman shortstop Dax Helsel attempted a squeeze bunt to score Seitz, but Burnett was ready for it. He flipped the ball to junior catcher Chance Wolfe, who tagged Seitz for the second out.
"Their kid made a heck of a play and the ball actually bounced off of Ben's helmet and into the catcher's glove, so it was a kind of lucky play for them," Wood said. "Weird things happen in baseball. We didn't score on it but we didn't get down because we'll score another way.
"That's our mentality."
Freshman left fielder Cory Hanger then sent a 1-0 pitch from Burnett to right field for a two-out single, loading the bases. That ended the night for Burnett and brought in Wolfe from behind the plate. Clever's top pitcher this season, Wolfe was immediately greeted with a bases-clearing triple by South Callaway senior catcher Konrad Kemper into the left-field corner, scoring Hanger, Helsel and Leeper to stretch the Bulldogs' lead to 4-0.
Senior right fielder Bradley Smart, the eighth batter of the inning, flied out to right to end the surge. Leeper followed by dismissing the Blue Jays in order in the bottom of the fifth.
South Callaway added one more run in the top of the sixth on another RBI hit by Seitz. This one was a single to left to score Williams, who reached on a fielder's choice and advanced to second on a throwing error by the Clever second baseman.
"We absolutely needed those runs, because you never know what's going to happen," Leeper said.
Wolfe was able to bring Clever within 5-2 in the sixth with a two-out, two-run double to the left-field wall, scoring center fielder Travis Pennewell and DelToro. Leeper induced senior shortstop David Pennewell into a groundout to short to end the threat, keeping Wolfe at second and the tying run, junior first baseman Ranger Curtis, from getting to the plate.
"They got to him (Leeper) a little bit in the sixth inning, he left a pitch up which was the change-up that they hit, but after that he went back to work," Wood said. "When he's on, he's tough."
Leeper hit Clever junior third baseman Bryce Wilson with a pitch with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, but then struck out sophomore designated hitter Chance Comer to end the game and send the Bulldogs to the state championship this afternoon.
"The emotions are just a rollercoaster," Wood said. "This is unchartered territory for all of us as well, but we're not going to be intimidated."
"I'm hysterical," Leeper added. "It's hard to believe quite honestly, but I think we can do it, that's for sure."
Kemper was 2-for-4 with a double, a triple and his three RBI as South Callaway finished with 10 hits. Seitz finished 2-for-3 with a triple, two RBI and a stolen base, while Hanger went 2-for-4 with a run scored and a stolen base.
Wolfe was 2-for-4 for Clever (26-4), which also lost in last year's Class 2 semifinals and finished third. The Blue Jays will square off against Summit Christian (22-6) - which bowed to New Bloomfield for the Class 2 state title in 2011 - for third place at 7 tonight.