BELOIT-The West Branch baseball team has talked often this season about winning the program's first Notheastern Buckeye Conference title in 17 years. That goal was put in serious jeopardy last month after the Warriors dropped their first two conference games. Now, with one week left in the regular season, it is fully back within reach.
Behind a complete game two-hitter from junior Kip DeShields, the Warriors held off first-place Marlington 1-0 Thursday at West Branch High School.
West Branch improves to 12-7 overall and 10-2 in the NBC and pulls into a first place tie with Marlington (13-7, 8-2). The Warriors-which beat Marlington 11-1 Tuesday-complete a season sweep of the Dukes.
"We got off to a tough start in the league with two early losses to Canton South, but we believed we still controlled our own destiny," DeShields said. "It's a tough league and the coaches said if we won the rest of our league game we'd be right there. Since then, all we thought about was winning out and so far we're doing it."
While excited about the win, the Warriors realize their work isn't done. West Branch closes out its league schedule with two games against Louisville (7-4 NBC) next Tuesday and Thursday. Marlington still has two games each left with Minerva and Alliance.
"We haven't won anything yet, DeShields said. "We still have two games to go."
After teeing-off on Marlington ace Brock Balderson two days ago, the Warriors had a much tougher time with senior left-hander Jake Jones, who struck out eight and walked none. West Branch pushed across the only run of the game in the third inning.
Jake Evanoff led off with a bad-hop single to left, was sacrificed to second by Ryan Evans and moved to third on an infield single by Dylan Greenawalt. Jake Smith then hit a liner to right for a sac fly.
"(Jake) Jones has a great arm and we knew scoring was going to be hard," West Branch coach Shawn Alazaus said. "We were looking to sacrifice and move runners over at every opportunity. We wanted to give Kip (DeShields) a lead to work with."
DeShields (6-1) made the run stand up. Facing a potent lineup that has hit eight total home runs, the right-hander had the Dukes chasing after his hard slider most of the game. He struck out five, walked only one and held Marlington hitless until the fifth inning.
"My slider was definitely working tonight, and my fastball also had some nice movement and they had trouble catching up with it," DeShields said. "My defense backed me up tonight and the coaches deserve a lot of credit for working with me in the offseason."
The biggest threat from Marlington came in the fifth. After Jake Begue led off with a hit-by-pitch, Austin Hershberger crushed a line drive that a diving Ryan Adams in center and rolled all the way to the fence. Begue looked like a sure bet to score, but fell down rounding third base and had to scramble back.
Still, the Dukes had runners at second and third with nobody out. However, Begue hesitated on a grounder to short and was tagged out at home on the next play. DeShields then worked free from there.
"Getting out of that jam was a huge boost," DeShields said. "After we held them there, I thought we had the game."
The Warriors will try the delicate balancing act next week of trying to advance in the tournament while also chasing a league title. West Branch faces the winner of Niles and Ravenna Southeast in sectional play on Monday. If they win, they will play Poland on Saturday.
"Obviously it's the biggest week of the year," Alazaus said. "Playing in the tournament and going for a league title in the same week is a part of high school baseball with all the rainouts, We can't act like we've won anything yet."
Marlington beat West Branch 9-1 in the jayvee game
Canton South-a preseason favorite of many in the NBC-sits one game back of Marlington and West Branch with a league record of 8-3, keeping the possibility of a three-way tie in play. The Wildcats swept West Branch, but were swept by Marlington.
WB-Kip DeShields, wp, (7IP, 5K, 1BB) and Jake Smith
MA- Jake Jones, lp, (6IP, 8K, 0BB) and Tyler Tokos.