MARION — The Marion baseball team’s journey toward a South Seven Conference championship was certainly a strange one this season.
The Wildcats competed without their best player, Hez Goodman, for most of the year, but they still found a way to succeed.
Cory Howard hit the game-winning RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday to help Marion defeat Mount Vernon, 7-6, in the conference title game.
The Wildcats (17-5, 8-2) and Rams (19-7, 8-2) will share the league crown because the conference doesn’t have a tiebreaker. Marion handed Mount Vernon its only two conference losses of the season.
“That’s what makes it as satisfying as anything,” said Marion coach Marty Manfredo. “It is hard to lose a player at any time, but it’s a little easier to overcome it when you don’t have him from the beginning of the season instead of the middle. But losing a kid like Hez, who was the Co-Player of the Year in the conference and probably the returning best pitcher in the conference, we just had to use the old next man up theory. But it’s awfully hard for one kid to replace somebody that talented.”
After Mitchell Jackson pitched the first four innings, and Howard tossed the next two, Goodman threw the final three innings to pick up the win. But Goodman did give up Marion’s 6-4 lead in the top of the seventh, which sent the game to extra innings.
Goodman pitched around an error, his own wild pitch and a hit batsman, and somehow escaped the seventh with a tie game. He also balked in the game-tying run.
“Give them credit; I thought they battled Hez hard,” Manfredo said. “He told me he has never balked before in his career. I don’t know how we got out of it. He gutted his way through it. The most pitches he had thrown was about 30, and he threw 50 or 60 tonight. It was just pure guts. He wanted to help his teammates win the conference.”
Things looked great for Marion early on. Jackson was dealing and fanned four batters in the first two innings. Jackson also hit a run-scoring single and had the help of a Rams error, which allowed Marion a 4-0 lead after two frames.
But Mount Vernon tied it up 4-all in the third, with the help of a Marion error. Charley Allen knocked a two-run single late in the inning. Weston Brockhouse pitched pretty well for the Rams over the first five frames before Parker Wielt took over on the mound.
Jackson allowed four hits through four-plus innings before he was removed in favor of Howard.
“Mitchell was just gassed, and we haven’t had a lot of hot weather before now,” Manfredo said. “He was only at about 70 pitches, but I’ll give him credit for being honest. He told me he was running on fumes. Cory Howard came in and did a great job for a couple of innings. Mount Vernon has had a stranglehold on the conference for the last 10 years or so. This is a great accomplishment for our kids. It makes it even sweeter only having Hez for the tail end of the season. My kids battled hard all season.”