The Verona Wildcats have a way of saving their best baseball for the postseason, and this year was no exception. After blowing past Golden City in the first round, the fourth-seeded Wildcats took top-seeded Exeter into extra innings in Monday's district semifinal, falling on a walk-off sacrifice fly in the ninth.
The Tigers took an early lead in the bottom of the first, scoring two runs on a pair of walks, an error and a double. But the Wildcats worked out of the early jam and came back with a run of their own in the top of the third to make it 2-1.
Exeter added another two runs in the bottom of the inning, but Verona again cut the lead to one in the top of the fourth. And, after a scoreless fifth, the underdogs tied the game in the top of the sixth on an error to make it 4-4.
Kolton Pinkly struck out two of three batters in the bottom of the inning, and the Wildcats responded by taking their first lead of the game in the top of the seventh. A one-out single by Caleb Hillhouse got things going, followed by a walk to Gabe Smith. David Hoziner then drove Hillhouse in with a single to give the Wildcats a 5-4 lead.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats' own errors would lead to the game-tying run in the bottom of the seventh. After a scoreless eighth and top of the ninth, the Tigers scratched out three straight singles to load the bases before claiming the win on a sacrifice fly to right field.
Verona finished with four hits on the night, one each by Hillhouse, Hoziner, James Tye and Jere Ruiz Diaz. The latter three each recorded an RBI, while Hoziner scored twice to lead the team.
Pinkly threw six innings of five-hit ball for Verona, striking out 11 batters and walking four. In a relief effort, Hillhouse threw two and a third innings, allowing four hits and striking out two.
While the result was disappointing on the night, the Wildcats' performance in the district tournament is encouraging for the future, especially after an 11-1 blowout over Golden City.
Hoziner led the Wildcats in the district opener, as well, recording three hits, two runs and two RBI. Smith and Tye added two hits and two RBI each, while Hillhouse recorded a hit, two walks and three runs.
Pinkly picked up the win in the Saturday game, striking out 14 batters and allowing just one hit over five innings. Hillhouse struck out all three batters he faced in one inning of work.
The majority of the team will be back and looking to get to the district final next season, as Jonathan Freiburger is the lone senior moving on from the team. Next year's strong core of returning starters will look to improve on this season's final overall record of 4-14.