Panthers win district championship
By Eric Wade
Daily Mail Sports Editor
SHELDON -- For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Sheldon Panthers baseball team and head coach Jason Irwin can finally call themselves district champions. Despite being a heavy underdog, the Panthers brought an end to a 19-year drought Tuesday night, defeating the Drexel Bobcats by a final score of 5-1 to take the Class 1, District 7 championship.
The last time the Panthers won the district title was in 1995, when Irwin was still in his playing days.
"I was in high school, playing against Sheldon, when they were winning the district championship," Irwin said.
The Bobcats entered the day with a 7-1 record, with their only loss coming on May 9, against Sherwood -- a Class 3 school. Head coach Steve Cozad's squad brought an impressive resume into Tuesday's contest that featured wins over Osceola, Montrose twice, Bronaugh and even Sheldon.
That, and the simple fact that senior pitcher London Collins already has scouts from Major League Baseball watching him, gave the Bobcats a substantial edge -- at least, on paper -- coming into Tuesday's championship contest.
"The Collins kid is just a great pitcher," Irwin said. "He has beat us three times in the last two years, so we had a game plan coming into tonight, how we were going to take the approach at the plate. We knew that we had to attack him early."
In the previous matchup between the two squads, Cozad told the Daily Mail his Bobcats put up five runs in the fifth inning against Sheldon's Reed Worsley to take a 7-2 victory. The second time around, Worsley and the Panthers held up, however, avoiding the season sweep.
By the time all was said and done, Worsley allowed just one run on five hits with nine strikeouts and three walks in seven innings to take the complete-game victory. Worsley got quite a bit of help from his defense along the way, as the Panthers turned a pair of double plays on line drives, one of which got Worsley out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning.
"That was definitely the key, was our defense," Irwin said. "Coach Judd and I talked, we thought we needed at least four runs to win the game."
The Panthers' defense came up big on a number of occasions in the contest, but such was not the case for the Bobcats, as the play that opened things up for Sheldon in the early going was one that could have been very different. In the top of the first inning, the Panthers had the bases loaded when Jesse Spencer hit a fly ball that went over the right fielder's head when he failed to get a good read on the ball in the air.
That play was one Cozad said would have likely been avoided under normal circumstances, as the right fielder he played in Tuesday's contest was the backup to Javyn Johnston, who didn't get the start because he was away, competing in the Class 1 state golf tournament. Spencer took full advantage of Johnston's absence, lacing the ball into deep right field to clear the bases.
By the time the play was over, Spencer was standing at third and the Panthers owned a 3-0 lead on the first of three hits he recorded in the contest. At game's end, Spencer found himself with a single and a double to go along with that first-inning triple, putting him just a home run short of hitting for the cycle.
"Jesse Spencer, man, he came up huge," Irwin said. "He's been hit or miss all year and tonight was definitely a hit for us."
The Panthers added one more run to their lead on one hit and two more defensive lapses by the Bobcats in the third inning to take a 4-0 lead. Despite getting to Collins early, however, Irwin said he and his squad may not deserve all of the credit.
"I'm going to give some credit to Bronaugh for last night, to get to him," he said. "I mean, they had to eat (Collins) up a few pitches last night and I think that was a big difference, too."
Collins was unable to go the full distance for the Bobcats, but it didn't really matter, as the game's final run was scored by the Panthers in the sixth inning, giving Irwin's squad a four-run victory and breaking what was a three-game losing skid for this year's senior class in district baseball championship games.
"They said it at the beginning of the season, that they were going to do nothing but win," Irwin said.
With the win, the Panthers improved to 8-7 on the season and Drexel's season came to an end with a record of 7-2. The Panthers are now scheduled to move on to the Sectional round, which will be played Monday, at Lakeland.
The Vikings won the District 8 tournament Tuesday, defeating Weaubleau by a final score of 12-1.