When the Aurora Houn' Dawgs became sectional champions for the second year in a row last season, the celebration was subdued. Coach James Hoffman and his team knew the game was just a necessary step on their road back to the final four and ultimately to the state championship, so the skipper told his players to treat it like business.
This year, the circumstances around the game itself were no different, but the celebration sure was.
Whereas the Dawgs cruised to a 5-0 victory over Monett in last year's sectional game, Aurora needed extra innings to take down Nevada and advance to quarterfinals this season. And although fans might not have expected such a close game from the 15-8 Tigers, the identity of Tuesday's walk-off hero likely came as a surprise to no one.
With the game knotted at five runs apiece to start the top of the ninth inning, senior Matthew Miller decided enough was enough, blasting the first pitch he saw well over the right field fence to win the game and extend the Dawgs' season.
The moment was a familiar one to Aurora fans, as Miller had ended last year's district tournament in similar fashion -- only that time the Houn' Dawgs had been a strike away from elimination.
Although Aurora was never quite that close to having its title defense ended in front of the Tigers' home fans, the game did not go as smoothly as Hoffman and the Houn' Dawgs would have hoped.
The home team on the scoreboard, Aurora put up two runs early, scoring a pair in the first inning on a two-run homer by Gage Singer. The two-out blast scored Miller, who had doubled with two outs to get the offense going.
The Dawgs added a third run in the third inning, as leadoff hitter Miah Fisher came in to score on Miller's single, after having singled and stolen second.
But the Tigers wouldn't go away quietly, scoring three unanswered runs off starter Austin Erickson before Singer came on in relief. The junior cleaned up a two-on-one-out situation with a pair of strikeouts in the top of the fifth, but Nevada came back to take the lead off him in the top of the sixth.
A one-out double got things going for the Tigers, and eventually the bases were loaded after a single and an intentional walk. With two outs, a bloop single in no-man's land behind second base resulted in two runs, and the Houn' Dawgs found themselves in the unfamiliar territory of trailing 5-3.
Four outs away from elimination, the Aurora offense found life once again in the bottom of the sixth. Ninth place hitter Cody Childress smacked a two-out single to left field, and Fisher followed up with his own single the opposite way. Ryan Cline then stepped to the plate -- 0-for-3 thus far on the day -- and lined a double to left-center. Two runs scored to tie the game before Cline was cut down trying to stretch the double into a triple.
Tied at five, the game moved to the seventh inning, where Wyatt Sparks came in to pitch for Aurora. The senior ace made quick work of the Tigers and sent the Dawgs to the plate again, but they could not take advantage of a Miller leadoff double and intentional walk to Singer.
The Dawgs again put the leadoff man on base in the bottom of the eighth, but three straight outs followed to send the game to the ninth. After striking out the first two Tigers to bat in the top of the frame, Sparks gave up a hit to Nevada's seventh place hitter. The runner did not last long, however, as Sparks picked him off at first before throwing a pitch to the following batter.
Miller then capped off a personally flawless day by sending the Aurora fans home happy -- and receiving an ice water shower for his efforts.
The senior finished the day with four hits -- three for extra bases -- a walk, two runs, two RBI and two stolen bases. Fisher also contributed two runs and two stolen bases, along with three hits, while Cline and Singer drove in two runs each.
Sparks earned the win on the mound, throwing three innings, allowing two hits and striking out five. In the starting role, Erickson went four and a third, giving up five hits and striking out eight, while Singer allowed four hits and struck out three over one and a third.
With the win, Aurora faces a familiar foe in quarterfinal action on Thursday, as the Dawgs host Helias Catholic (20-7) from Jefferson City. In previous meetings over the past two seasons, Aurora has defeated the Crusaders 9-4 and 8-2 to advance to the final four.