Kevin Kelly reports:
Chuck Harlow was going to allow himself and his players from Clayton Northmont until 2 p.m. Friday to savor what they accomplished Thursday.
“Until 2 o’clock, it’s a party going on,” the Thunderbolts coach said.
Northmont pulled off what few anticipated Thursday, handing top-ranked Mason a 6-1 loss in a Division I regional semifinal that will stand as the Comets’ first and final defeat of the season.
The Thunderbolts (23-7) advance to the regional final where they will play Moeller at 5 p.m. Friday at Marge Schott Stadium.
The defending Division I state champion Crusaders defeated Lakota East in Thursday’s early game.
“Moeller’s been there many times and we’re Cinderella,” Harlow said. “But we’re a Cinderella that’s working pretty hard. We’re going to show up tomorrow, I can tell you that.”
Mason’s undoing was four-run top of the first by Northmont. In an uncharacteristic display from a team that had allowed just four runs combined over its previous seven games, the Comets (26-1) made three errors, issued two walks and hit a batter.
Starting pitcher Andrew McDonald (6-1) threw 33 pitches in the inning and 79 over his four-plus innings.
“We haven’t done that all year,” Gray said. “You can’t do that and expect to win. And they’re a good ball club. We still had plenty of chances to score and didn’t get the key hit today. We’ve been getting the key hit all year long. Just one of those days.”
McDonald said the mood in the Comets’ dugout remained optimistic.
“The first thing we said when we walked into the dugout was there’s a lot of ball left and six innings is a lot of time to make up ground,” he said. “We had chances, hit balls hard, but it’s baseball. We just didn’t find the gap today.”
Northmont pitcher Tommy Stoffel, who will room with McDonald at Virginia Tech in the fall, didn’t need any more run support than what was provided before he even stepped onto the mound Thursday.
The left-hander (8-1) allowed one run on six hits and struck out eight in a complete-game performance.
Mason scored its only run in the bottom of the first inning. Senior shortstop Connor McVey, a University of Cincinnati signee, led off the inning with a triple and then scored on a grounder to second.
The bottom of the third inning ended with a close play at third base.
Northmont junior center fielder Zach Weatherford prevented a Mason run by catching a fly ball for the second out of the inning and firing a one-hopper to third baseman Braydon Focht as Mason senior center fielder Billy Highfill slid head-first into the base. Right fielder Lee Sponseller had tagged up from third and was headed home but Highfill was called out first.
Gray argued the call.
“It was on the third baseman’s knee and then it rolled up Billy’s back and he grabbed it,” he said. “It came out of his glove, rolled on his knee, rolled on Billy’s back when he slid in there. I don’t know how he couldn’t see it but that’s baseball.”
The Comets loaded the bases with one out in the fourth but Stoffel got out of the jam with a strikeout and a fly ball to centerfield.
Gray said he will remember this Mason team for what it accomplished rather than falling short of its ultimate goal of a state championship. The Comets finished 18-0 in the Greater Miami Conference en route to an undefeated regular season and are ranked nationally.
“I’ve been around Mason since 1972 and it’s the first team that I know of to go through a season and lose only one ballgame,” he said. “Great group of kids. Worked their butts off. Gave us a chance. Hey, we had a chance today. It just didn’t happen.”
Clayton Northmont 6, Mason 1 (Division I region semifinal at Marge Schott Stadium)
WP – Stoffel (8-1, 7 IP, 8 Ks); LP – McDonald (6-1). Leaders – M – McVey 1-4, 3B; Thompson 1-3, RBI; Dunn 2-3. N – Stoffel 3-4, Sanders 1-3, 2RBI.
Records: M – 26-1, N – 23-7.