OZARK – Coach David Heath put both hands on the shoulders of slugging Ozark 17U first baseman Harrison Gray and looked him square in the eyes as the two stood down the third base line of Eagle Stadium Thursday afternoon.
“Harrison has been in a slump,” Heath said. “I told him, ‘Son, you know you’re one swing away (from winning it).’”
Ozark trailed the Dothan Dragons 16U 5-3 as Gray went to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning with the bases loaded, two outs and the 16/17U AAU National Championship tournament title on the line.
The Dragons of coach Jake Kirkland had forced an if-necessary game with an 11-5 win earlier in the day and had led the finale the entire way.
Gray changed everything as he ripped a pitch in the gap between right and center field to clear the bases and give the championship to the home team Ozark by a 6-5 score as Darryl Lee dove in safe for the final tally.
“He’s fast and I knew he was going to score when I hit that ball,” Gray said of Lee.
Lee wasn’t planning on slowing down.
“As soon as I saw it off the bat, I knew it was in the gap and I got home,” said Lee, who easily beat the throw home. “We never gave up.”
It took a monumental comeback to rally past the gritty Dragons, who had come through the loser’s bracket to almost pull off the championship.
“For 13 innings, they outplayed us and we were just fortunate enough to win it at the end, thank goodness,” Heath said of what became a doubleheader. “We got some big hits and had some boys suck it up on the mound today.”
Ozark had gone through the tournament unbeaten at 3-0, which included a 9-3 win over the Dragons on Wednesday morning. Dothan, however, earned another crack at Ozark after beating the four-time defending champion Wiregrass Cardinals 15-3 on Wednesday afternoon in an elimination game.
Down 3-1 in the first game on Thursday morning, the Dragons scored 10 times in the bottom of the fifth inning to force the if-necessary.
Dothan then jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the finale when Tanner Raybon scored on a wild pitch and Reigh Jordan singled in Carter Fanning, who had doubled in the previous at-bat.
Ozark sliced the lead in half in the bottom of the first when Lee doubled in Carson Brannon, but Dothan got back the run in the third when Jordan doubled in Raybon for a 3-1 lead.
The Dragons made it 5-1 in the fourth when Fanning singled up the middle to score Adam Anderson and Theron Hawkins.
All along, Dothan starting pitcher Carson Dykes was throwing a magnificent game in limiting Ozark to just two hits over the first five innings.
Ozark finally got some offense going in the sixth when Lee tripled to right field to score Bailey Sparrow, who had led off the inning with a walk. Lee also scored on the play when the throw to third went past the third baseman and into the dugout to make it a 5-3 game.
In the bottom of the seventh, Dykes got a fly out to begin the inning. Brannon reached on a walk, but then he was forced out at second on a grounder to third from Abe Chancellor for the second out of the inning. Sparrow singled to center field to keep the game alive for Ozark and Max Roland was brought in on the mound in relief of Dykes.
Lee walked to load the bases before Gray ended it with his drive.
Jackson Kelly earned the win in the mound after entering in the fourth inning.
It was the first national championship win as a head coach for Heath, who began coaching summer league baseball in 2005.
“I’ve never won anything this big,” Heath said.
This isn’t the end of the road for Ozark, which leaves for Sterlington, La., Friday morning to compete in the Dixie Pre-Majors 17U World Series starting on Saturday.
“That’s a big one right there, because if we had lost this, I think they would have had their heads down,” Heath said of his team. “Now we don’t have anything to do but go over there and play baseball. I’m looking forward to it.”
Game 1 – Dothan 11, Ozark 5: In the opener on Thursday, Ozark took a 2-0 lead in the top of the second when Max Burgreen hit an opposite-field double into left field to score Sparrow, who had doubled to lead off, and Grant Odom, who had walked.
Dothan plated an unearned run in the bottom of the second when Tanner Taylor reached on an error and later scored on a groundout off the bat of Tucker Jackson. Ozark got the run back in the fourth when Kelly came in to score after Chancellor beat out an infield hit with good hustle to make it 3-1.
However, the Dragons exploded for 10 runs off six hits in the fifth inning to take a commanding 11-3 lead.
With the bases loaded and nobody out, Tyson Kirkland hit a chopper over the pitcher for an infield hit to bring in the first run of the inning. Raybon walked to tie it at 3-3 then Fanning singled up the middle to score two more in giving the Dragons their first lead at 5-3.
A run came in on a wild pitch with Jordan at the plate. Jordan singled in another for a 7-3 lead. Jackson drove in a run with a sacrifice fly and another run came in on a balk to make it 9-3.
Raybon finished off the big inning with a single to bring in two more runs as the Dragons led 11-3.
Ozark scored in the top of the sixth on an RBI single by Brannon, and he later scored on a groundout for the final 11-5 score.
Jordan went the distance for the win on the mound for the Dragons, scattering eight hits.
18/19 Tournament: The LB Warriors of Baton Rouge, La., defeated the North Florida Black Sox (White) 5-2 on Thursday morning at Northcutt Field in Dothan to force an if-necessary game for the championship of the age division.
North Florida bounced back in the second game to win the title by defeating the Warriors 11-3.