MOKANE -- The South Callaway Bulldogs had the better starting pitching while using a five-run second to chase the North Callaway Thunderbirds starter en route to advancing to their second straight district championship.
"As with most schools, that's our goal, beginning of the year is to go ahead and win the district title," South Callaway coach Heath Lepper said. "We all know you can't win it if you don't get there. So they took the first step today in taking care of business in the semis, and so we'll get some rest and hopefully put our guys back on the mound and have another good game tomorrow."
In the final Callaway Cup meeting of the 2022-23 school year (one with the most at stake), top-seeded host, Class 3 No. 5 South Callaway ended the fourth-seeded North Callaway Thunderbirds season, winning 6-2 in the Class 3 District 7 semifinals Monday at South Callaway's baseball field.
During the game-deciding bottom of the second, the Bulldogs recorded six of their nine hits -- if it weren't for that inning, South Callaway would've tied North Callaway in hits (three).
"Well, you look at what the bottom of the lineup has been doing all season -- second half of the season anyway," Lepper said. "I think it started with around the sixth hole or somewhere in there, and our bottom was able to bring our top back up. We've been able to do that here lately, and we've kind of come to count on it."
After the Bulldogs' leadoff hitter grounded out, South Callaway notched four straight singles: Braden Allen grounded a hard-hit single past short and into left, Chase Mealy slapped a single up the middle, JT Thomas sent Allen home on an opposite-field base hit over the second baseman's head and into the gap in right-center and Dane Daugherty smacked a single to shallow left.
Before all-conference infielder Jacob Martin came to bat, North Callaway coach Zeth Lavy visited starter Sam Pezold, and the meeting worked as Martin popped out to the shortstop in shallow left-center. However, the rebound was short-lived, with the following four Bulldogs getting on base.
Two run-scoring plays started that string of on-base plate appearances. First, South Callaway starter Ryan Lepper helped himself, finding the gap in shallow right-center and rounding first for a two-RBI single, then No. 3 hitter Owen Rees whipped a bases-clearing two-RBI triple past North Callaway's sliding centerfielder -- he slid past third initially, but avoided the tag and put a hand on the bag.
Following a walk and hit-by-pitch, the Thunderbirds pulled Pezold since the Bulldogs threatened to increase their already comfortable 5-0 lead.
Pezold -- one of two on North Callaway to make all-conference -- took the loss. The junior allowed five runs (all earned) on six hits, two walks and a hit-by-pitch in 1⅔ inning.
The Thunderbirds brought in Davis Woods -- who threw a complete-game shutout versus New Bloomfield Tuesday and had a no-hitter for 6⅔ innings, a perfect game for five innings -- and he carried last week's performance to this week.
North Callaway's Woods struck out the first batter he faced to get out of the jam in the second.
Overall, the Thunderbirds' Woods allowed one unearned run on three hits and a walk while striking out two in 4⅓ innings. Making his relief appearance more impressive, Woods allowed two of his three hits in the third -- his first full inning of work -- while not giving up an extra-base hit.
"I can tell you he probably wasn't expecting to pitch in the (second) inning today," Lavy said. "But did a great job of ....being ready when his number was called. I thought he did a good job of attacking the zone. Keeping guys off balance, kind of a different look than Pezold was giving them from the other side, obviously velocity-wise."
Making it a great final game of his high school career on the bump and offensively, Woods skied a one-out solo shot over the fence in left-center to trim North Callaway's deficit to four (6-2).
"He's kind of come on the last few weeks with the bat," Lavy said. "It's something about this place; it's his thing. That's his fourth career home run, and all of them have been hit at this field, and the first three were grand slams."
The Thunderbirds plated their first in the third when Braydn O'Neal stole second, then Jordan Fishburn scored as South Callaway's catcher overthrew his second baseman; O'Neal made it to third as the Bulldogs' centerfielder made an errant throw to his third baseman.
Unfortunately, the Thunderbirds couldn't string hits together as South Callaway did.
Martin drove in South Callaway's final run in the third with his RBI sacrifice fly to left.
While the Bulldogs' offense slowed down after the third, their pitching stayed consistent throughout -- no matter who they threw.
Lepper earned the win for South Callaway, allowing an unearned run on two hits, five walks and a hit-by-pitch while striking out eight.
"Ryan, who fell behind in counts but just gutted it out and got us into the fifth or the sixth there," Lepper said.
In relief of Lepper, JT Thomas allowed one run on a hit and no walks while punching out two in two innings.
"JT coming in and closing the door with that kind of lineup," Lepper said. "He had to finish it there in the seventh facing one through three -- that's big. Big, big spot, and couldn't be more proud of him."
Unable to get their bats going, the Thunderbirds end their season at 15-9 -- their most wins in 11 years (10 seasons). During that 2012 campaign, Missouri Tigers standout Zach Lavy's senior season, North Callaway, fell 4-3 to Blair Oaks in the Class 3 District 8 championship.
"I'm not too much on moral victories, but when all but one team in the class loses their last game, right?" Lavy said. "So when you're looking back and looking at the whole season, I think we beat a lot of good teams. I thought we battled with some really good teams, and I thought we won some games that maybe the last couple of years get away from us when adversity happened.
"Because the seniors in this group really kind of held us together in those moments. Even today, when we give up a five-spot, there's nobody in the dugout looking around for somebody to come help. They're ready to go, go battle, get back. We came up short, but those guys never wavered. They were ready to come back in the dugout and battle."
Meanwhile, No. 1 seed South Callaway (20-7) will host No. 3 seed Hermann (19-13) in the District 7 championship at 5 p.m. today in Mokane. The last time the two teams met, Hermann squeaked out a 1-0 victory in a pitcher's dual on April 18 in Mokane.
"About 10-11 games ago, we decided to worry about a couple of things," Lepper said. "And it's got nothing to do with the other team. It's got everything to do with our hustle and our effort. So when you're winning, and those are the things you are worrying about, then we don't have to worry about what goes on out there. We take care of our attitude, and our effort, and good things normally happen."