Austin Hicks tosses shutout as Bell City baseball defeats Oran for third straight district title
ORAN, Mo. -- After watching Austin Hicks give up two hits to the first two batters and then escape the inning unscathed, his coach and catcher had an idea.
Maybe you need to speed up your pace on the mound, Bell City baseball coach Justin Simpher and catcher Bobby Wright suggested to Hicks after the first half-inning of the Class 1 District 2 championship. At times this season, he's gotten into trouble by taking too much time in between pitches, Hicks said.
So the senior hurler started toeing the rubber quicker -- he was often ready to throw before Oran players stepped into the batter's box. That adjustment, along with a curveball he located for strikes, helped Hicks toss a three-hit shutout as top-seeded Bell City defeated No. 2 Oran 3-0 at Oran High School on Tuesday afternoon to capture its third consecutive district title.
After the first inning, Hicks gave up just one hit and issued two walks, and Wright drove in all three runs as the two-time defending Class 1 state champs advanced to Monday's sectional matchup against Cooter.
"When all his pitches are working man, it's fun to catch," Wright said. "It's fun to watch, hard to hit."
Hicks finished with nine strikeouts as he gave up three hits and two walks in seven innings. He ran into trouble early as Drew Reischman led off the game with a single. Layne Johnson followed with a double to left. On Johnson's hit, Reischman tripped as he rounded third base, and thanks to two good relay throws, he was tagged out as he scrambled back to the base.
The Eagles still had a runner in scoring position with one out, and catcher Clay Sauceda made solid contact with a line drive up the middle. But Bell City shortstop Cole Nichols snagged the ball and then doubled Johnson off at second to end the inning.
"My team gave me confidence right off the bat," Hicks said. "I was a little shaky coming out of the box, and they do what a good team does and pick you up."
Wright then gave Hicks, and the team, more confidence in the bottom of the frame with his first home run of the year.
By Wright's standards, it's been a tough season, but the senior crushed a 2-1 fastball over the 330 sign on the left-center field fence for a solo homer.
"I haven't been having the best year at the plate but I've been doing what I can, and I think every team knows that," Wright said. "So they've been trying to just get me out with fastballs. I've seen a fastball down the middle, just tried to barrel it up, and it went far."
Oran (14-5) had a chance to answer in the second, but Hicks worked around a leadoff walk and a two-out infield single. For the final five innings, only two Eagles reached base and neither advanced past first base as Hicks started throwing curveballs for strikes.
"He's got a really good curveball and he was battling with it early on," Simpher said. "I told him in between innings, you know, 'Go out there and that's our focus. Let's work on getting over the plate for a strike.' So he went out there and from then on he kept on throwing it hard. It's what we're used to seeing from his curveball."
Bell City (17-6) tacked on the final two runs in the third when Wright drove in Nichols and Hicks with a bloop single to shallow right.
"That was kind of the perks of hitting a home run first at-bat really because they were playing real deep," said Wright, who was the only player with multiple hits.
Johnson surrendered three runs on four hits and a walk in six innings while striking out six but took the loss as Oran fell to Bell City in the district final for the third straight year. The Eagles beat the Cubs 3-2 on May 8, but Hicks wasn't on the mound for that regular-season contest.
"We've just been stuck behind Bell City, who's won state the last two years and probably has a pretty good chance this year," Oran coach Joe Bickings said. "I've always felt like this district championship game was more of a state championship game, and they've just been able to win it."
For the Cubs' six seniors, five of which are starters, this was the last district title of their high school careers. Winning the crown has become commonplace, but that didn't diminish their joy Tuesday.
A couple minutes after Wright had finished posing for photos with the plaque alongside Simpher and the other seniors, a group that includes Nichols and Hicks, he reflected on the latest championship win.
"This one probably means the most to me since I'm a senior, my last year," Wright said. "But I'm just ready to keep on going and see what can happen."
WP -- Austin Hicks. LP -- Layne Johnson. 2B -- Johnson (O). HR -- Bobby Wright (BC). Multiple hits -- Bell City: Wright 2-3.