Reliever, Bears hold on for win

CONWAY -- Owen Stover wasn't the first option for Woodlawn on the mound Friday night. That duty fell to Austin Howard, the Bears' workhorse who entered with a 13-0 record.

Stover acknowledged afterward he wasn't even the second-choice arm. But in the most perilous of situations, Woodlawn turned to its starting first baseman.

Up 3-1 in the top of the fifth inning -- but with the bases loaded and just one out -- Stover toed the rubber. On his seventh pitch, the lanky senior balked, unable to execute a pickoff play at third base.

Another run came home, cutting the Bears' lead to one.

Yet it seemed to shift things for Stover.

"It loosened me up a little bit because when I went on the mound, I was like, 'They can't score a run, can't score a run, can't score a run,' " Stover said. "Once that run scored ... there was a base open at first base and I could walk somebody."

Stover wouldn't walk anyone, throwing 22/3 scoreless innings en route to a save and tournament MVP honors as Woodlawn held off Palestine-Wheatley for a tense 3-2 victory in the Class 2A baseball state championship game at Bear Stadium.

With their ninth all-time title, the Bears matched Junction City for the most by any program in the state and extended their recent run of three straight championships and six in the past seven state tournaments.

"People don't understand, it's hard to get here," Coach Tommy Richardson said. "These guys worked from the first day of school to this point and we still had nerves. I thought we played really tight.

"But that's what happens in a situation like this because they're so invested and they want it so bad."

Howard and Palestine-Wheatley pitcher Jacob Hickman each walked seven batters, but it wasn't until the bottom of the fourth that the free passes ultimately cost either team. Woodlawn (31-3) loaded the bases with three straight one-out walks before Tate Hall's sacrifice fly gave the Bears a 1-0 lead.

Still, Woodlawn could not manage a hit off Hickman.

That was until Dillon Lunsford lofted what looked to be the third out of the inning to shallow right-center.

A miscommunication between a trio of Palestine-Wheatley fielders allowed the ball to fall to the turf, bringing two more Bears home and giving Woodlawn all the scoring it would need.

The Patriots immediately responded, scoring twice, once on a bases-loaded walk by Howard and again on Stover's balk. But the Bears managed to keep their lead intact as Stover got a strikeout and a fly out to end the frame.

Palestine-Wheatley (15-10) would threaten once more in the seventh, down to its last two outs. Back-to-back singles by Hickman and Jacob Varner put the tying run in scoring position, only for Stover to get his fourth strikeout and put Woodlawn on the brink of a title.

Stover dialed up two breaking balls against Tra Guthrie, then signaled to his catcher for a third.

The blonde-haired Bears reliever could only turn and watch as he hung one and Guthrie launched it into deep left field.

"I saw the left fielder going back and I was like, 'Oh, gosh,' " Stover said. "Then he stopped and camped under it and I knew it was over."

Once Woodlawn dogpiled yet again and collected their trophy, Richardson started jogging out to shallow left field.

He grabbed the ball from the final out and pocketed to give to Stover later.

A 21-game winning streak dating to late March fittingly extended just as it had started -- with a win over Palestine-Wheatley.

"This run ... it's this group, and they're going to hand it off to the next group," Richardson said. "Our small community, they knew what's expected of them. They're supposed to hold that [trophy] right there."