Written on a dry-erase board in the home dugout Thursday at Gary Flora Field were six words to live by for the Shawnee baseball team: “Do or die time! Brave strong.”
The Braves hadn’t won a tournament game since 2009, meaning no one on the current team had experienced postseason success on the diamond. If any team had the potential to break that streak, it was this one, and Shawnee proved that to be true with a five-run first inning on the way to a 6-3 victory over Graham in a Division II sectional semifinal.
“This is the best team we’ve had here in four years,” senior Andrew Young said. “We’ve always been a high seed and have always gotten upset. We’ve got the core guys to do it. It’s going to be exciting.”
Third-seeded Shawnee (16-10) will play No. 6 Kenton Ridge (14-13) in the sectional final at 5 p.m. Thursday at Urbana. The Braves swept the Cougars 4-3 and 4-3 in the regular season.
There was little doubt from the start that Shawnee would get past No. 9 Graham (8-19). The Braves had six hits in the first inning. Three were infield singles.
Jordan Huggins started the rally with a hard shot off Graham pitcher William Wells. Huggins came around to score on a fielder’s-choice groundout by Evan Lyons. Young added an RBI single, and then T.J. Skaggs drove in two with a double. Skaggs scored the fifth run of the inning on a Graham error.
“That put them on their heels,” Young said. “They were shell-shocked.”
That was plenty of run support for Shawnee starter Derek Zinkhon (4-2), who didn’t give up a hit until the sixth when the Falcons broke through for three runs thanks, in part, to two Shawnee errors.
“Getting those five runs really boosted my confidence level,” Zinkhon said.
Zinkhon struck out six, walked three and gave up two hits in seven innings.
“He prepared himself really well,” Shawnee coach Andy DeWitt said. “He was ready. There was pretty much no question who I was going to go with tonight because he’s got experience. He had good velocity. When he hits his spots and goes at batters and makes them swing the bat, he can be really successful, and tonight he started off really well for us.”
Shawnee scored one more run in the fifth, and Young gets all the credit for that. He stole second, third and home. He was racing for home on a squeeze play. Zinkhon missed the bunt, but Young scored anyway.
“I’ve never done that before,” Young said. “The third baseman was playing pretty deep. I got a walking lead. I was about halfway down the line before the kid even threw the ball.”