CAMDEN — Saturday’s Section III Class B1 championship game had the feel of a heavyweight title fight, with both teams trading punches offensively early on before going on the defensive in the later stages.
In the end, the No. 2 Camden Blue Devils were the ones who had their arms raised, as they defeated the No. 4 Homer Trojans, 11-9, at Camden Yards.
The Trojans landed the first blow with two runs on four hits in the top of the first but stranded two runners in scoring position. The Blue Devils answered in the bottom half with three runs on two singles, two walks and an error.
In the second inning, both offenses hit even harder. The Trojans sent all nine of their batters to the plate, with five of them scoring on four hits. Joey Case plated two runs with a double and Zander Johnson had a two-run single to chase Blue Devils starter Elijah Ciani and give the Trojans a seemingly comfortable 7-2 lead.
But that lead proved to be anything but comfortable, as the Blue Devils sent nine batters to the plate in the bottom of the second before the Trojans could even get one out. The first four batters reached and one run scored before Case, the Trojans’ starting pitcher, was pulled in favor of Johnson.
Johnson’s second pitch was laced deep into the outfield for a two-run double by Nick Balcom (3-for-4, three RBI, three runs). A Brady Crawford walk reloaded the bases, then Derek Holmes hit into a fielder’s choice where the play went to home, but Dillan Melchiore was ruled safe, tying the game at 7.
Two more bases-loaded walks in the inning gave the Blue Devils a 9-7 lead before Johnson was finally able to fight out of the inning. To his credit, Johnson settled down incredibly well after the second inning, pitching the next four innings with just two more runs allowed on three hits while striking out seven.
“If we were healthy with the guys that could have been on the mound, it’s a whole different story,”
Trojans coach Robert Nasiatka said. “There were some nerves in the first couple of innings.”
Those two runs came in the bottom of the fifth to extend the Blue Devils’ lead to 11-7, with the aid of just one hit, a two-run single by Derek Holmes. The inning was kept alive by a dropped third strike, walk and five stolen bases.
The Blue Devils’ pitching staff did their part to match Johnson’s efforts, as Zane O’Hara, Cole Narolis and Eric Mitchell combined to go the last 5 1/3 innings with three hits and two runs allowed.
The Trojans got the deficit back down to 11-9 in the sixth on RBI singles by Michael Grant and Johnson (3-for-4, four RBI) and had the go-ahead run at the plate with one out, but Narolis got Tanner Douglas to ground into a 4-6-3 double play to end the rally.
Before the Trojans got their last turn at the plate, they turned in some fantastic defense in the bottom of the sixth to ensure that their offensive task would not be any more difficult, as Richard Lambrecht caught a pop-up against the backstop, Jon Barnes made an over-the-shoulder catch drifting into the outfield and Douglas fired a cannon from third to get Narolis running up the first base line.
“Zander pitched his heart out after the second inning,” Nasiatka said. “I can’t say enough about him… and you see the defense in the sixth inning, if we start this game again, we’d win 7-3.”
After reaching their first sectional championship game in Nasiatka’s 16-year tenure, the Trojans will return the vast majority of their squad next year and hope to make an even deeper run when state championships return.
“You don’t get many chances like this,” Nasiatka said. “We had to fight hard to get here. When you look at it and how we had to go to South Jefferson, that’s tough. And then you have to come up here, it’s tough when it’s not a neutral site… It hurts a lot, and it will hurt for a while. But we broke open a glass ceiling. We hadn’t been here yet. We made three semis, and now this…we’ll be back.”