A year after making the school's first ever appearance in the baseball Final Four, the Aurora Houn' Dawgs last Thursday put to rest memories of a loss that has plagued them since last June.
Where last year's team had a nervy performance -- seven errors in seven innings for a 7-4 loss -- this season's Houn' Dawgs proved they could more than handle the big stage. Aurora scored 12 runs on 11 hits to down Pleasant Hill in five innings, picking up the win that eluded the team last year and moving on to the state championship game for the first time ever.
Junior pitcher Wyatt Sparks set the tone of the game in the first inning, striking out all three Pleasant Hill batters that stepped to the plate before knocking a single to lead off the bottom of the inning.
A bunt single by senior Kaleb Baker followed, before a Pleasant Hill throwing error on a bunt by Matthew Miller brought home Sparks for the game's first run. Baker and Miller then came around to score on a two-run triple by sophomore Gage Singer to make it a 3-0 game after one inning.
The Roosters put up a fight in the top of the second, scoring two runs after three straight hits to start the inning. But a 6-3 double play started by Singer helped Sparks out of a jam.
The 3-2 lead would have been enough for a dominant Sparks, but the Aurora offense was far from finished. A one-out single by senior Preston Naylor got things started in the bottom of the third, after which senior Zac Shoemaker reached base on a dropped third strike, as Naylor had previously moved up on a wild pitch.
With two on and one out, freshman Ryan Cline tripled to right field, scoring Naylor and Shoemaker. Cline then scored himself on a double by senior designated hitter Payton Evans.
After a bunt single by junior Miah Fisher and a hit by pitch drawn by Sparks, Baker brought home another run with a sacrifice fly to right field. A two-run double by Miller brought Fisher and Sparks in to score before the inning ended with the Dawgs leading 10-2.
The Pleasant Hill leadoff hitter doubled to begin the fourth inning, creating a scoring opportunity for the Roosters, but a heads-up play by Sparks on a comebacker off the next hitter's bat led to a fielder's choice to erase the runner from scoring position. Sparks then retired the next two batters in order to end the half inning.
Aurora would add two more runs in the bottom of the fourth, thanks to an RBI triple by Evans and a single by Fisher, making it a 10-run game.
With the mercy rule dictating the game should end if a team is leading by 10 or more runs after five innings, Sparks went out and once again retired the Roosters in order, sending the Houn' Dawgs to their first ever state championship game in baseball.
The junior pitcher earned the biggest win of his career, allowing just two earned runs on five hits while striking out six over five innings.
Offensively, four Houn' Dawgs finished the game with two RBI -- Miller, Singer, Cline and Evans -- while Naylor, Evans and Fisher each recorded two hits. Every player in Coach James Hoffman's lineup scored at least once, with Sparks, Shoemaker and Evans each touching home twice.
The victory pitted the Houn' Dawgs against Lutheran South the following day, after the Lancers defeated Westminster Christian to move on to the championship game.