ROME — There is beauty in the struggle.
Heritage’s Game 2 loss to Pope — an 11-1 drubbing in six innings — was a struggle all around for the Patriots, who had hopes of sweeping Pope to claim its first-ever baseball state championship Wednesday evening at State Mutual Stadium following a 7-2 Game 1 victory.
With the series heading to a winner-take-all Game 3 Thursday, the Patriots’ struggle soon turned into beauty.
Behind seven gutsy innings on the mound from senior Nolan Woodward and two 5-run innings at the plate, a Class AAAAAA state championship trophy awaited the Patriots after dethroning the 2-time defending state champion Greyhounds with an 11-4 victory.
Their state championship marks their first in the 43-year history of the Heritage program. The Patriots fell in their three previous trips to the finals in 2007, 1984 and 1982.
An emotional Nick Watson-Garcia, who was on the hook for the Patriots’ Game 2 loss on the mound, fought back tears while soaking in the moment he and his fellow senior class had dreamed about since freshman year.
“We’ve been talking about this for four years,” Watson-Garcia said. “We’ve worked so hard. Practicing almost every day. Even when we didn’t have practice, we were up there practicing. For it all to finally pay off, it was great. This is the best feeling that I’ve ever had.”
For the first time in the 3-game series, it was the Patriots who pushed the first runs of the game across. Heritage’s early lead was not possible without a stroke of magic on the mound from Woodward, who found himself in a bases-loaded jam with one out in the first.
Four pitches later, Woodward and teammates were rejoicing after the senior was able to end the inning with back-to-back pop-ups on the infield, allowing the Patriots to enter the second inning unscathed.
“In my head, I told myself that they weren’t scoring,” Woodward said.
The Patriots’ carried their new found momentum into the second and scored five times. Griffin Holcombe gave the Patriots a 1-0 lead on a grounder past Greyhounds’ third baseman Tommy Hutchins, scoring Darryl Buggs.
A Woodward sacrifice bunt advanced Calabria Atkins and Holcombe into scoring position with two outs, setting up a 2-run single to right off the bat of lead-off hitter Cole Smith. The line shot into right extended the Patriots’ lead to 3-0 and allowed the junior to race into second following an error.
Christian Davis followed with a 5-pitch walk — his second in as many at-bats — ending the day for Greyhounds starter Andrew Bowman.
With Quinn Kerce in to pitch for Pope, Watson-Garcia plated the fourth run of the inning with a single to right. With runners on the corners, catcher Ray Joseph served the first pitch he saw over the head of Greyhound shortstop Buddy Floyd into left field, scoring Davis.
With the Patriots’ lead cut to 5-1 heading into the third, Holcombe gave Heritage the run back with a deep fly to left that one-hopped the outfield wall, scoring Henry Clay from first.
Looking to run away with the victory, Pope designated hitter Ian Hancock had other ideas.
With two outs and runners on first and second, an elevated off-speed pitch from Woodward was hammered over the right-field fence by Hancock for a three-run homer, who with one swing of the bat, cut the Patriots’ lead to 6-4.
With the Greyhounds thinking comeback, Heritage head coach Shane Ramsey and the Patriots quickly shut the door.
“We did not allow (Pope) to get any momentum today,” Ramsey said. “Even when they hit that home run, I kept telling the guys to look at the score board. We were still up. That’s what (Nolan) did a great job of. He got out of stuff and stayed patient.”
With the Patriots’ bats cooling off in the games’ middle innings, Woodward’s arm did nothing but heat up.
After escaping the third inning without further damage, Woodward set down the next nine batters that he faced. A strikeout looking against Pope leadoff hitter James Tibbs to start the fourth was followed up by a slick barehanded putout from the left-hander, who fielded a bunt attempt up the first-base line before tossing the ball to Atkins at first.
Woodward needed 20 grueling pitches to escape the fifth inning without allowing base runner. A popout to start the inning on an 8-pitch at-bat was followed by a groundout. The senior finished the inning off with only his second strikeout of the game on a 3-2 count.
A third straight 1-2-3 inning in the sixth was achieved with the senior needing only nine pitches to set down the Greyhounds.
“I can’t say enough about what Nolan has done in his last two starts,” Ramsey said. “But even in his entire high school career, he’s done great. But to come up in this environment, against that offense and do what he did, it was great.”
With the top of the lineup due up for the Greyhounds in the bottom of the seventh, the Patriots tacked on five more runs, ending any hopes of a third straight state championship for Pope.
With a run already in, Smith was intentionally walked to load the bases. In stepped Davis, who entered the at-bat 3-for-8 in the series with a pair of RBIs. After quickly falling behind 1-2, Davis lined a single up the middle, scoring two runs in the process to extend the Patriots’ lead to 9-4.
“I felt that they didn’t respect me as a hitter,” Davis said. “I came up there thinking that I have to get a hit. I was down 0-2 and I figured out that if I stayed back, I’d be able to drive the ball back up the middle. I stayed back as long as possible and it scored two runs.”
Watson-Garcia added insult to injury with a single up the middle of his own on the third pitch that he saw to plate runs’ 10 and 11 for the Patriots.
The senior finished his day at the plate 3-for-5 with three RBI.
“I knew that I had to help my team in some way,” Watson-Garcia said. “If one thing doesn’t work, you have to try to help as much as you can. That’s why we win because everyone just does as much as they can to help. I didn’t have a great day on the mound yesterday, so I had to come out and hit well and play defense well.”
The Greyhounds answered back with two hits in the bottom of the seventh, but with one step on the bag from Buggs, who handled an in between hop before racing over to the third-base bag for the final out of the game, it was the Patriots ending with a dog pile.
One Patriot after the other met Buggs and Woodward just right of the mound with hands held high, setting up mass chaos as a tower of Patriots was formed with Ramsey sandwiched in the middle.
It was a moment in time Ramsey, even minutes later thinking back on it, had trouble keeping his voice from cracking and his eyes from shedding tears.
“It’s hard. I love these guys,” an emotional Ramsey said. “This is something that I’ve had a dream of my entire life as a coach. I believed in these guys the day that I got here. To see this, it’s all them. They believed in what we wanted to do. I love them to death. We’re connected for life.”
Woodward finished the game with seven innings of 7-hit, 4-run ball. The senior earned his sixth win of the season on the heels of his complete-game victory against Effingham County in last weeks’ semifinals.
“It was one of the hardest games,” Woodward said. “I just had to be on my A-game at all times. With the little strike zone that they were giving us, I had to be on point with all of my pitches. It was very tough. I just relied on my defense. They helped me out the entire game.”
Woodward, whose brother, Nick serves as the Patriots’ pitching coach, said it was thrilling to share the championship with him.
“It’s so special,” Woodward said. “I love that man. He came here and tried the same thing. Just having him alongside the whole time has been amazing.”
Holcombe, who earned his 10th win of the season in a Game 1 masterpiece against the Greyhounds, was the last one to join the dog pile from his right-field position in Game 3. The senior said the long run over was well worth the wait.
“I never really thought about how it would feel to win state, but I definitely thought that we could do it,” Holcombe said. “It’s crazy. It still hasn’t hit me yet.”
Joseph, who joins Holcombe, Watson-Garcia, Atkins, Clay and Woodward as the six seniors to say goodbye, had a difficult time containing his emotions at the conclusion of the game.
“I am just so happy,” Joseph said. “I am so excited for my team. We’re state champions. We’re No. 1 in Class 6A. It’s crazy. I never knew we would make it this far. That’s why I can’t stop crying right now.”
To lead a team Ramsey said little to no one gave a fair shot to win a state title, the veteran said the bumpy road to get them there was well worth the bruises.
“I’m proud of my guys because they keep competing, they keep fighting and they keep believing when nobody else believed in us,” Ramsey said. “We believed in ourselves. I’ve got the most special group that I think anybody could ever have and the greatest Athletic Director in the country in Chuck Landy.
“To be able to see the joy in the Nick’s, the Ray’s, the Henry’s, the Calabria’s, the Nolan’s and in the Griffin’s, the work that they’ve put in for four years, it’s worth every bit of it. It’s worth every practice and every defeat that we’ve had because they get to go out on top.”