KENNEDALE — The Valley Mills Eagles had to travel through an emotional valley to reach the summit.
Chase Keeton’s full-count, two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the seventh sent Valley Mills over Windthorst, 9-8, to sweep the teams’ Region II-2A championship series. It was a crazy, wild Thursday night that bled into Friday morning for the Eagles (28-6), but they’re state-bound thanks to the victories.
They also withstood another wild Windthorst rally to win the opener earlier in nine innings, 11-9.
“They don’t ever quit,” Valley Mills coach Shane Keeton said of his team. “That’s the biggest thing we’ve tried to instill in them, that mental toughness. That (opening game) was a negative, that was a blow, man. I made a mistake in taking Chase out, he had nine pitches left on his pitch count. … It almost blew up in my face, but the kids showed their resilience.”
With the series victory, Valley Mills advances to the program’s sixth state tournament and first since the 2005 season. They’ll play in the Class 2A state semifinals at either 4 or 7 p.m. next Wednesday at Dell Diamond in Round Rock.
Game 1 could have been a disaster for Valley Mills, but the Eagles persevered. The Eagles scored in each of the first five innings on their way to a 9-1 lead, which they ended up taking into the seventh inning.
“We were one or two baserunning mistakes away from it being a run-rule in the fifth,” Shane Keeton said. “We just got a little lackadaisical.”
But Windthorst detonated for an eight-run outburst to tie the game. Each of the first nine batters of the seventh inning reached base for the Trojans. They ripped four hits, drew four walks and took advantage of a hit-by-pitch before Valley Mills recorded its first out of the inning.
That brought the score to 9-7, and then the Trojans got to within 9-8 on a Cooper Wolf groundout and tied things up on Awtry Blagg’s sacrifice fly.
The Windthorst crowd became increasingly more delirious with the rally. The game moved on to extra innings, but Valley Mills didn’t buckle. After neither team scored in the eighth, the Eagles moved back in front in the ninth on RBI singles from Cooper Buxkemper and Copper Nix.
Nix went 4-for-5 to pace Valley Mills at the plate, while Cooper Lane drilled two hits, including a three-run home run in the first. Buxkemper, Eli McNair and Cory McNair added two hits apiece.
Eagles senior Chase Keeton turned in a terrific outing on the mound, as he gave up only two hits and two runs in six innings, striking out 10. Windthorst’s rally came against the Eagles’ bullpen.
In the second game, the Eagles again jumped out to the early advantage, using a three-run first to make the Trojans play from behind. Buxkemper had an RBI single, Caden Collins worked a bases-loaded walk, and Valley Mills also scored on a Windthorst error.
Much like the first game, Valley Mills’ starting pitcher kept Windthorst at bay. Elijah Degrate had the Trojans swinging and missing throughout the night, striking out 11 in five scoreless innings.
“Elijah is just coming back, he had Tommy John surgery a year ago, and has been rehabbing,” Shane Keeton said. “We’ve been able to survive without him, but we got him back against Crawford, and he’s just been getting better and better.”
But, once again, Windthorst cashed in once the Eagles went to the bullpen. The Trojans exploded for two runs in the sixth and six runs in the seventh to push ahead, 8-5.
Heading to the bottom of the seventh, Valley Mills needed three runs to tie the game and keep things going to another extra frame.
The Eagles didn’t get three runs. They got four.
“I told the guys, ‘Look, they did it to us the first game, but they didn’t beat us,’” Shane Keeton said. “’If they can do it, we can do it.’”
Buxkemper and Lane both had one-out singles to set the table. Nix made it 8-6 with an RBI single. After Collins struck out, the Eagles were down to their final out.
They managed to cut the lead to 8-7 when Eli McNair reached base when the catcher was ruled to have interfered with McNair’s swing, and Buxkemper scored. Then down to their last strike, Keeton spanked a sharp single into left field, sending both Lane and Nix plateward and sparking a gleeful celebration.
“If you want it come down to someone, you hope that it can come down one of your better hitters,” Shane Keeton said. “He had said, ‘Just get it to me, and I’ll win the game,’ and I said, ‘That’s up to you guys.’ He’d had a rough night with the bat until then, think he was 0-for-7, but he found a gap through the six hole.”
Lane went 3-for-4 and Buxkemper was 2-for-3 for the Eagles, and the pair combined for four of Valley Mills’ nine runs.
Valley Mills also reached state in 1983, ‘91, ’92, 2002 and ’05.
“I’ll be honest, I’m stunned with the way we responded,” Shane Keeton said. “Normally when somebody kicks you, you roll over, but we didn’t roll over. We never quit.”
And now it’s on to state, a place that Shane and his son Chase have been dreaming about going together for many years.
“It’s just big time. When you’re a dad coaching your kid, you never know,” Shane said. “That’s the dream, reach the state tournament with your son, and we were lucky enough to get it done. It feels good. Used to take him to the state tournament when he was a kid and he’d say, ‘I’m fixing to play there one day,’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, OK. It’s hard to get there.’ So it feels really good to get it done.”