Celebrating a national championship, the Charleston Fighting Squirrels open up with a one-run win over the Charleston Riverdogs

Sunday, June 2, 2019
The Charleston Fighting Squirrels Stephen Willis dives back into first base, against the Charleston Riverdogs, on Saturday, June 1, 2019, at Hillhouse Park, in Charleston, Mo.
Liza King/Standard Democrat

CHARLESTON, Mo. — A season to remember was recognized on Saturday evening, as the Charleston Fighting Squirrels season kicked off by celebrating the 2018 Senior Babe Ruth World Series championship, at Hillhouse Park.

The introduction of all of the Fighting Squirrels’ affiliated teams, followed by a ceremonial first pitch from former Fighting Squirrel and Sikeston Bulldog Will Pratt— who was a member of the championship team — started the evening. Pratt suited up for the opposing team, the Charleston Riverdogs, on Saturday.

Eking out a 5-4 victory over the Riverdogs, put a stamp on a successful night that head coach Michael Minner nor his team would forget.

“When you’re coming off of a national championship,” Minner said. “And so that’s pretty cool to say for the first time ever, our opening night was a celebration of what our accomplishment was last year. I’m extremely proud of this community and all of the things that go with it. We probably had 5-600 people here tonight and to look up in the stands and see the stands full and so many kids that wear the jersey of something that we’ve dreamed up and to be carrying that on, is extremely special for me.

“I’ve been blessed to be here in Charleston, and people have taken care of me. I think we’ve put something together that people are proud of and that’s evident by how many people were here supporting it. We’re going to continue to work hard and continue to try to do things that make this place better. Hillhouse Park, there’s not a better venue — to me — in Southeast Missouri and in the Midwest, and I’m proud to call this place home.”

Taking the bump for the Fighting Squirrels was former Chaffee Red Devil Breven Yarbro.

Yabro — who finished his senior year at Chaffee with a perfect 10-0 record — gave up two earned run on 20 hits, while striking out 115 batters and walking 25 in 57 2/3 inning over his final season.

However, Yarbro struggled to find the zone early on in Saturday’s game.

Walking the bases loaded in the first inning, Yarbro found himself in some trouble early.

The Riverdogs went on to take an early lead, as Wyatt Pratt hit a sacrifice fly to center field, scoring Ty Ellis from third for the game’s first run. That would be the only damage done in the frame, though, as Yarbro got Cameron Duke to ground into a fielder’s choice, and Will Pratt to strikeout with a pair of runners on base.

Yarbro ended his night after 3 1/3 innings, giving up two hits on two earned runs. He struck out four batters and walked seven as well.

After giving up one run in the top half of the frame, the Fighting Squirrels answered the call in the bottom half of the inning, scoring twice.

Tanner King reached base safely on an error, and then after stealing second base, came around to score after Joe Panagos hit an RBI triple to tie the game. Panagos then scored the go-ahead run for the Fighting Squirrels, after Stephen Willis hit a single to plate the Scott City Ram.

After a pair of baserunners reached safely in the next two innings, Yarbro was able to work around both scares. In the second inning, after the first two batters were retired, Luke Marcum doubled, and Matt Manint walked before Ellis struck out looking to end the inning.

Then in the ensuing frame, Blake Gattis and Blake Wolferding both drew walks before Yarbro retired the next three batters to end the threat. He got both Wyatt and Will Pratt to strike out swinging, while Duke flew out to right field.

“Breven hadn’t thrown, he’s been on vacation, and it’s been a little while since he’s thrown,” Minner said. “He had a really good high school year; he was just struggling with the zone early. He finally settled in, and he did a good job of not allowing them to get up on us. We dodged a couple of bullets, and then Luke Nichols comes in and does a tremendous job; keeps us around in the game, and then Carson comes in and shuts it down.”

Nichols went four innings of relief, giving up five hits on two earned runs. He struck out four and walked three as well.

Aycock then finished off the game, retiring all five batters he faced, on 17 pitches.

The help of run support, along with great defense preserved the win for the Fighting Squirrels, which Minner talked about after the contest.

“Our pitching tonight, we walked too many guys,” Minner said. “We got to pound the zone with strikes, and especially in a big ballpark, but you saw tonight defense was the difference was the difference in the ballgame. We pride ourselves in playing really good defense. So, tonight, we may have had one error, but we had a tremendous night, and it was fun.”

Not only did Aycock produce on the mound, but at the plate as well.

In the third inning, Aycock hit an RBI single, plating Jacob Watkins from third, to give the Fighting Squirrels a two-run lead.

On the very next play, Chase Crosnoe hit — what looked like — the inning-ending out, but the Riverdogs center fielder dropped the ball, allowing Drew Korando to score and make it a 4-1 game at the time.

The Fighting Squirrels tacked on one more run in the bottom of the fourth, as Watkins scored Landon Tenkhoff on an RBI single, to make it 5-2, equaling the total for the defending champions.

Overall, the Fighting Squirrels mustered 12 hits on the night.

With a new group to manage this season, Minner understands that his team is young, but is also scrappy, which showed on Saturday.

“We were good enough offensively to put together some stuff,” Minner said. “I think this group is going to be scrappy. We’re going to be a group, we’re kind of younger than we normally are, and we got a bunch of guys that want to learn and want to get better. And so, it’s going to be a fun summer.”

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