Seconds after Chase Fisher’s glove gave off a “pop” in the way only a ball hitting leather can, the McKinleyville Panthers were gathered around their head coach Scott St. John.
And above the applause from the Panthers’ faithful and the cheers from his team, which had just secured McKinleyville’s first outright Big 5 Conference title since 1996, the coach could be heard saying “our team deserves this, our community deserves this.”
Needing just one win in Saturday’s regular season-ending doubleheader to clinch a Big 5 banner, the McKinleyville High baseball team took no chances and won game one against Eureka 5-1 before falling 4-1 in the late game, Saturday afternoon at Eureka’s Bud Cooney Field.
“First and foremost, I’m happy for my team. As coaches, this is only our second year here. These guys have bought in all the way to what we are doing. I’m just so happy for them, and for our school. Our school and community needed this, I hope it can bring a little joy after such a tragic event,” St. John said, referring to community bereavement for the recent victim of suicide at McKinleyville High. “The way our community supports our school is just incredible.”
Dustin Ireland — who delivered a 3RBI double to help lift McKinleyville over Eureka Wednesday — sent another bases-clearing shot to the center field wall to supply his Panthers with three runs in game one.
The hit came with two outs in the fourth inning and scored T-Ryan Stumph, Regan Wolfe and Corbin Eichin, turning a 1-0 lead — achieved after Corbin Eichin scored Fisher off an RBI single earlier in the inning — into a 4-0 stronghold.
“It couldn’t happen to a better kid,” St. John said of Ireland’s week — and season — of big hits. “He’s the hardest working young man you’ll find.”
Eichin started at pitcher for McKinleyville and, as the sophomore has done a number of times this season, put together a quality outing.
The sophomore pitched a three-hitter through six innings of work, giving up one earned run, three walks and two strikeouts.
“What we’ve asked Corbin to do this season is a whole lot to ask for form a sophomore,” St. John said. “He has stepped his game so far up this year, again, he’s just the hardest worker you can ask for.”
Despite the final outcome, Eureka had its chances to score.
As early as the first inning Eureka was right there. Keenan Morris, after some clever base running and a pair of steals, made it to third base before Kalebh Hill flew out to center field, leaving him and Isaak Gutierrez on base.
Eureka got two men on in the third as well, but ended with the same results as two innings prior.
Eureka was able to bring a man home in the fifth thanks to a sac RBI from Zac Anderson — right after McKinleyville had seized a 5-0 lead in the top of the inning.
Lance Lally handled the final inning at pitcher for McKinleyville after Eichin was retired, and Eureka no better luck against the closer.
Hayden Bode was able to get on in the seventh with a double for Eureka, but with two outs already on the board is wasn’t long until Fischer’s glove popped with the final out of McKinleyville’s conference championship run.
Eureka’s Brady Munson started at pitcher in game one, his first start since throwing a no-hitter in a win over Arcata on April 27 — Saturday proved not to be as easy for the senior.
Munson lasted four-and-two-thirds innings, giving up five runs, all earned, on 10 hits, two walks and four strikeouts.
Bode replaced Munson in the fifth inning and finished off the day without allowing another run, giving up one hit in relief effort.
Lally proved a hard out for either Eureka pitcher in game one as he went 3-for-4 with a run scored at the dish in the win. Ireland only had one hit in the game — the 3RBI shot — while both Isaac Puzz and Eichin had two hits a piece in the win.
Hill started at pitcher for Eureka in game two and went the full game, giving up one run on three hits while collecting an impressive 12 strikeouts. Morris, David Vagle, Jackson Giacone and Munson each had one RBI a piece in the win for Eureka.
McKinleyville’s Kyler Carr started at pitcher in the loss and went four innings during which he gave up two runs before being replaced by Jack Patton, who closed out the game.
With Saturday’s split McKinleyville ends its regular season 19-2 overall and 10-2 in the Big 5, good enough for the program’s first outright title this millennium.
“It’s just awesome, this means a lot. It was won by the kids who stayed in McKinleyville. We are one of the most poached schools in the Big 5, and we are also the smallest. So for the kids who stayed at McKinleyville High to win this, it just means the world,” St. John said.
McKinleyville will be the No. 1 seed from the Big 5 in next week’s Charles Lakin Humboldt-Del Norte League Tournament and will enjoy a first round bye. Eureka (9-3, 13-6) will be the No. 2 seed from the Big 5 and will face the No. 3 seed from the Little 4 Conference, Ferndale, on Tuesday.