It doesn't get much better in a state semifinal matchup than a pair of one-loss teams battling it out to reach the championship game, and that's exactly what fans saw last Friday, as the 29-1 Aurora Houn' Dawgs faced off with a 24-1 Boonville squad. And despite giving up the lead to the Pirates twice, the defending state champs came out as the only one-loss team by the end of the night.
The matchup got off to a somewhat surprising start, as the Houn' Dawgs -- visitors on the scoreboard -- went down in order before senior ace Wyatt Sparks gave up a two-out home run in the bottom of the inning.
The damage was limited though, as Sparks went on to complete the inning with his third strikeout in four batters and add three more Ks in the second inning.
The defending state champions got the first inning run back soon enough, as senior Austin Erickson led off the third with a double and later scored on a two-out single by senior leadoff hitter Miah Fisher. The rally was short-lived, however, as Fisher was cut down attempting to stretch the hit into a double.
The Pirates came back with three hits and two runs in the bottom of the inning to make it 3-1, but again, the lead did not last long.
After a pair of hard-hit outs to right field, two of Aurora's biggest bats made themselves known at the O'Fallon ballpark. Junior Gage Singer and Sparks smashed back-to-back home runs to tie the game and bring the Houn' Dawg faithful to life after a sluggish start.
From there, Sparks had it taken care of on the mound, but the offense still needed to get over the hump and take the lead for the first time in the contest.
The Dawgs did just that in the following inning, scoring the go-ahead run on a bit of small-ball. A one-out single by sophomore Jay Lee got things rolling, followed by a walk to senior Cody Childress and a bunt single by Fisher to load the bases.
Sophomore Ryan Cline then came to the plate and hit a ground ball to the Boonville third baseman, who threw home to cut down Lee's attempt to score. The Pirate catcher then went to first to try to complete the double play, but the throw was wild, allowing Childress to score what would become the winning run.
Aurora would add another for insurance in the top of the sixth, as freshman pinch runner Carson Barr came in to score on a passed ball to make it 5-3.
Five outs from defeat, the Pirates got their first baserunner since the third inning on an error by Lee in the bottom of the sixth, but a double play ended the inning and put the Dawgs in prime position to make it back to the final.
After a 1-2-3 top of the seventh, Sparks recorded his 13th strikeout of the game and induced a lineout to second base. The next Boonville batter then appeared to have a base hit just over senior second baseman Blake Williams' glove, but Erickson played the ball perfectly in right field, coming up throwing to get the force out at first and end the game.
As the Boonville coaches and fans argued the call, the Houn' Dawgs erupted in celebration, rejoicing in the feeling of being headed back to the state championship game for the second year in a row.
In his final game on the mound for the Houn' Dawgs, Sparks went the distance with a four-hitter, allowing three earned runs and a walk while striking out 13 to increase his overall team lead in Ks.
At the plate, Fisher's three hits and one RBI led the team, followed by Singer's two hits, one run and one RBI.
With the victory -- their 30th on the year -- the Houn' Dawgs went on to face St. Mary's (St. Louis), which came into the Final Four with a record of 17-10. For coverage of the final game, see Page 8.