O’FALLON, MO. — It was no April Fools’ joke when Oak Grove senior Cole Doherty injured a ligament in his knee during a Panthers practice April 1.
By BILL HESTER
Special to The Star
And it is no joke that two months later to the day, Doherty drove in the go-ahead run in a 4-3 Oak Grove victory over Boonville in the Class 4 semifinals Saturday at T.R. Hughes Stadium.
Doherty will now take the mound today as he tries to lead Oak Grove to its first state baseball championship since 1992. The Panthers face two-time defending champion Westminster Christian Academy at 12:30 p.m. The Wildcats defeated Logan-Rogersville 4-1 in the other semifinal Saturday.
“When I hurt my knee in April I was afraid I would not to get to play my senior season,” Doherty said. “Now I get a chance to pitch in the championship game against the defending champion. It is a childhood dream and I cannot wait. I know they are a very good team and that they are supposed to win. I love to be an underdog. This has been a such a great journey.”
It’s a journey that the experienced Panthers hope have a happy ending.
Doherty played a key role in getting the Panthers to the title game with two hits and his game-winning sacrifice fly. He scored his team’s first run in the opening inning as Oak Grove matched Boonville’s first-inning run.
The Pirates took a 3-1 lead with two runs in the fourth inning. But, once again, Oak Grove answered in the bottom of the inning. Doherty opened the inning with his second hit of the game. Dakota Hearn followed with a shot directly at the shortstop as pinch runner Kyle Martin was doubled off first. But the Panthers did their damage with two outs as Conner Matson reached on an error, which was followed by consecutive hits by Jake Kienzler, Tanner Johnson and Corey Bolin.
Oak Grove took its first lead in the fifth inning as Seann Baker doubled down the left-field line opening the inning. Levi Harmon followed with a bunt single, and Doherty drove in Baker with a shot to center in which Boonville center fielder Jacob Francis made a diving catch.
“They had just brought in a left-hander,” said Doherty, a left-handed hitter. “I was ahead on the count and I just wanted to get one deep enough to get Seann home. I got a good pitch to hit.”
Matson, who struck out 10 in going the distance for his ninth victory of the season, took care of the rest, retiring nine of the final 10 Boonville batters.
“I felt we would be in good shape with Conner in the mound if we could just get the lead,” Panther manager Kirk Sears said. “We hit a lot of at-’em balls but we got the lead and Conner took care of the rest. He is such a competitor on the mound.”
The Panthers, who are making their first final four appearance since 1994, look to make history today. Sears thinks his team is ready for the huge challenge.
“We have faced adversity all season and persevered,” Sears said. “Adversity makes you stronger, and this team knows what is on the line. We watched a little of Westminster, and the guys asked me if they are as good as advertised. I said yes but that all four teams here are that good. We know that now there are no tomorrows, and tomorrow is what these guys have played their whole lives for.”