By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
This is for the beloved former player and coach known as “Atch”.
This is for all previous teams that came so close.
This is for the Willard community.
State champions. Finally.
Willard beat Grain Valley 9-8 in the Class 5 state championship game at US Ballpark in Ozark, with a knockout from sophomore Kyden McMain at the bottom of the seventh.
The victory marks the first team’s championship for Willard High School in any boys’ sport.
“I was just trying to be calm out there,” McMain said. “I knew I was capable and just had to stick to that mindset. We’ve never had a state championship before, so it was pretty cool to do it for our seniors and our team and all the adversity we’ve been through. ”
The Tigers drew 8-7 into the seventh, but tied it on Elliott Friend’s RBI single.
Two strokes later, McMain, the No. 9 hit in the lineup, came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. He hit only 231 on the season, and broke through the right side to score Kade Biellier.
McMain’s teammates thanked him with a celebratory dog stack.
“It’s crazy with that kid,” said Willard senior and starting pitcher Gavin Burk. “He has not had that many bats this year, he gets pinched, and then he has the biggest bat in his life and comes through.”
There was no shortage of meaningful stories for Willard.
The Tigers finally have a boys’ state championship. They were shut down after suffering a heartbreaking loss in the semi-finals in 2019 and a canceled 2020 season.
Perhaps most of all: They won it for Justin Atchison, a Willard graduate in 2013 and former assistant coach. He died in the autumn of 2018 in a hunting accident.
Atchison coached some of Willard’s current players, including senior Blake Hultgren.
“He was one of the most important people in my life,” Hultgren said. “He is the one I want. He’s special to me … I know he’s up there smiling at all of us.
“I do not even know how to explain (winner status). I’m lost for words. It is fantastic.”
Instead of pulling Atchison’s jersey, the Tigers keep their legacy by awarding No. 4 to a current player.
Hultgren had No. 4 this season.
“We give this number to the player we feel best represents Atch in their lives,” Willard coach Scott McGee said. “If you’re up for a Willard game, the No. 4 guy is the person we think represents Atch the most.
“We think of him every day. It’s not just the players. Anyone who knew Atch would tell you what a wonderful person he was. His legacy has lived on through so many people. ”
How Willard won his first state championship will be talked about for a long time.
The Tigers scored in each of the first four innings, including three races in the fourth. Hayden Rakestraw had an RBI single and Hultgren had a sac-fly RBI that put Willard ahead 7-2.
Grain Valley starter Riley Brown lasted just two innings.
Grain Valley (27-9 overall) relaxed on Willard’s lead behind a four-run fifth inning.
The Eagles went on to go 8-7 in the sixth on Parker Bosserman’s RBI double and Kaden Jeffries’ RBI single.
After leading the entire game, Willard now had an 8-7 deficit with only six outs left.
“We’ve been in a lot of close fights this year and always seem to find a way to win,” said Burk, who allowed two earned races over 4 1/3 laps. “It prepared us for a game like this.”
For the second day in a row, Willard won by rounding.
Cooper Hampton and Biellier lit the Willard rally with back-to-back singles on the seventh. The friend’s RBI single tied it; two strokes later, McMain won it.
“He’s struggled offensively at times, but he’s such a competitive kid,” McGee said of McMain. “First on bats he gets a triple. The second gag hits his head coach for him – that says something. The third at-bat, who still has the confidence to come up and beat the game winner, it’s amazing what he did today. ”
The Tigers overcame two errors, and some unlucky runs – four runners were tagged out, including two at third base – to win.
“It’s a fitting end to our season,” McGee said. “We made some bad moves as coaches, did some bad things basic, made some bad games defensively, but we kept coming back.”
Klayton Kiser came on for relief and recorded the last five outs.
Grain Valley threatened to increase the lead in the seventh, with runners on second and third and only one out. Kiser knocked out the next two hitters.
“(Kiser) has amazing things,” McGee said. “He is in and out of the zone at times, but today he was in the zone. He threw us out of several paper jams. ”
Willard finishes 27-10 overall and also expects to be a state competitor next season. The Tigers are graduating a senior class with six players.
“This Willard program has meant so much to me,” Hultgren said. “I’ve had good teammates and good coaches.”
McGee, in his 14th season as Willard’s head coach, has seen many former teams approach winning it all. The Tigers lost in the state semifinals in 2012, 2013 and 2019.
“I’m so proud of our Willard community, because when you invest in something like that, you’ll eventually be rewarded,” McGee said. “We have had some tough breaks and some tough moments. We have had teams that were very, very good and were almost there. ”