Traditionally in baseball, when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter, there tends to be little to no discussion about it in the dugout.
But there isn't much that's traditional about throwing a no-hitter in a high school state championship game, especially when it's Austin Erickson on the mound.
The Aurora senior was nearly perfect through six innings of last Saturday's Class 4 state championship game, and, admittedly, fully aware of what he might have been about to accomplish.
"I was actually joking around with it in the fourth inning with a couple of the teammates," Erickson said after the game. "You always have to keep it loose."
That mentality paid off in full for Erickson and the Houn' Dawgs, as the senior hurler worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning to secure Aurora's second straight state championship. He became the first pitcher since 2001 to complete a seven-inning no-hitter in a state championship game.
While Erickson was dominant on the mound, the Aurora offense did all it could to scrape out a couple of runs against a formidable St. Mary's pitcher. The Houn' Dawgs put runners on base in three of the first four innings but could not push a run across until they got a little lucky in the top of the fifth.
After a strikeout to start the inning, sophomore Ryan Cline blooped a popup to the outfield turf behind second base, where the St. Mary's centerfielder and second baseman collided, allowing the ball to fall for a hit. As the players went down injured, Cline hustled to second base for a double.
The Aurora catcher would tag up and advance on a sacrifice fly by senior Matthew Miller and later score what would be the game-winning run on a passed ball.
Finally pitching with a lead, Erickson struck out the side in the bottom of the fifth, and his team put up a run of insurance in the following inning.
A walk and an error allowed the first two Aurora batters to reach base in the sixth, but it looked like another rally would be thwarted when the next two batters went down quickly. That's when another Aurora senior made his mark on his final game as a Houn' Dawg.
After striking out in his first two at-bats of the day, Cody Childress smacked a ground ball up the middle for an infield single, scoring Wyatt Sparks.
"It felt pretty good. I was kind of struggling throughout the day, but I finally came through," Childress said later, adding that this year's title felt a little sweeter to him than last season's. "This year, [because] I started, it actually feels more special because I really had to work for it and put in the effort to get it."
But the game wasn't over yet, and the Dragons wouldn't go down quietly. After getting through some nerve-wracking games in the sectional and quarterfinal rounds, the Houn' Dawg fans held their collective breath as the home team came to bat in the seventh inning.
With a leadoff ground ball to start the top of the seventh, it looked as though Erickson's no-hit bid had come to an untimely end. Miller scooped up the grounder and tossed to Erickson covering first, but the pitcher bobbled the catch and the runner was called safe, with a hit initially going up on the scoreboard. The play was later officially ruled an error, preserving the no-hitter.
"I'll take the error," Erickson said amongst a group of Aurora fans after the game.
After the error and a foul popout to Miller, Erickson plunked the next batter to bring the winning run to the plate. The next St. Mary's hitter grounded back to the pitcher before another hit-by-pitch loaded the bases, but Erickson remained calm and struck out the final batter on four pitches.
Following a second consecutive state champion "Dawg pile" and medal ceremony, head coach James Hoffman was almost unable to describe what it meant for his team to defend its title so successfully.
"I am at a loss for words for what these kids have done, not just for me but for our community," he said. "It is just awesome to be able to bring this home."
In addition to the second state championship trophy, the Dawgs brought home another Missouri record, as the pitching staff ended the season with a total of 382 strikeouts, eclipsing the record set by last year's team at 319. Erickson accounted for 10 of those in the final, wrapping up his senior season with a performance to remember.
The Houn' Dawgs totaled six hits on the day, two off the bat of junior Gage Singer and one each by senior Miah Fisher, Cline, Childress and sophomore Jay Lee. Childress accounted for the lone RBI on the day, while Cline and Sparks scored the only runs.
By next season, Aurora will lose a majority of its starting lineup, as Fisher, Miller, Sparks, Erickson, Childress and Blake Williams have graduated. But the Houn' Dawgs will still be highly competitive with the likes of Singer, Cline and Lee returning to the lineup.