Science Hill took a big first step in its pursuit of a second straight state baseball championship.
Behind a solid outing by starting pitcher Nate Conner and a bases-clearing triple by catcher Owen Painter, the Hilltoppers defeated David Crockett 6-3 in Sunday’s District 1-4A playoff game at TVA Credit Union Ballpark.
It sets up a matchup of Science HIll (31-5) and Dobyns-Bennett (21-11) in Monday’s winners’ bracket final. David Crockett (11-21) will face rival Daniel Boone (11-20) in an elimination game.
Conner gave up just four hits and two runs over six innings. Science Hill coach Ryan Edwards felt confident going with Conner instead of Cole Torbett or Gavin Briggs, who have started more pressure-packed games.
“He pitched a great game and hit his spots all day,” Edwards said. “It was a gutsy performance. Every game is nerve-racking, but if you go out there the first game of the tournament, it adds more pressure. Even though he hadn’t pitched in conference much, he pitched against a lot of good teams outside of conference and proved to be a quality starter.”
Painter’s three-run triple in the fourth inning provided to be the difference on a day when both teams scratched out seven hits. Torbett added a sacrifice fly as the Hilltoppers opened up a 5-1 lead.
“We were put together to get some good at-bats that inning,” Edwards said. “Even the last inning, a run we got in the sixth inning, that was huge. The tying run would have been on base if not for that. Every run in the postseason is huge.”
Edwards was referring to an RBI double by Landon Smelser to score Jet Swartz, who was running for Painter. It’s a big change from the lineup early in the season. With Jack Torbett and Painter back from injuries and others filling in, it has given Science Hill added depth in this part of the season.
Conner was able to keep the ‘Toppers from going deep in the bullpen. He helped his cause with an RBI double to plate Jaxon Diamond for the game’s first run in the bottom of the first. As for his day on the mound, it was simply stick to a familiar game plan.
“I just trusted Coach Edwards. He had a good scouting plan,” Conner said. “I just tried to throw strikes, hit spots and trust the defense. We have a good squad and if they hit the ball, we make the play.”
David Crockett lead-off batter Garrett Leonard joined Smelser as the only players to have multiple hits. Jacob Ayers had an RBI single to tie the game in the top of the fourth. Down by fourth in the sixth, Jobe Hannecken singled on a line drive to left field for Caleb Bradburn’s second run.
Leonard singled to score Noah Oster in the seventh, and Crockett ended the game with the tying run at the plate. Still, they weren’t able to extend enough at-bats.
“We weren’t able to put the pressure on them,” Pioneers coach Spencer Street said. “I’d liked to have been in position to scratch one or two more (runs) here or there. We let them off the hook in the fifth inning when (Conner) got out of there with four pitches. I would have liked to extended that inning.”
While he didn’t get the win, Ayers did his team a big service by going the distance on the mound. Street was coy about who might throw against Boone in the elimination game.
“For him to be able to go the whole game, that was huge,” Street said. “He battled through and was tough. He bounced back from a tough inning, if you take that inning away, this game has a different look. We played good defense for the most part.
“We’ve got a couple of options for tomorrow, a lefty or righty, so we will see. It might be someone who hasn’t pitched much.”