The word trickled down from the St. Pius brain trust at 3 o’clock Saturday afternoon.
Up until that hour, Sartans head coach Matt McCoy and his assistants had been chewing over who would be their most viable candidate to send to the mound for the Sartans’ final game, and most important game, of the season: his son, Jacob, a senior, or sophomore Matthew Cornelius.
It was Cornelius who got the call, and then pitched the game of his young life. He survived a rough start to give up just one run over six innings, and No. 1 seed St. Pius captured the Class 4A state baseball championship with a 5-2 triumph over No. 3 Artesia on Saturday night at Santa Ana Star Field.
“I was so nervous,” Cornelius said, smiling. “I just counted on my team that they had my back.”
Indeed they did. The Sartans (24-5) put up three runs in the first inning, highlighted – but only in part – by Josh Lackner’s two-run home run, and led most of the way against the Bulldogs (21-10) as St. Pius won its first state title since 2013.
“This group of guys is amazing to me,” McCoy said. “… This is the exclamation point at the end of the sentence.”
Aside from Lackner’s bomb, how did St. Pius get it done offensively? Easy. With a sacrifice fly, two Artesia throwing errors and a rare straight steal of home.
But it’s best to begin with Artesia’s top of the first. The Bulldogs loaded the bases with nobody out, but scratched home only one run against Cornelius, who registered two strikeouts and a fly ball to prevent Artesia from posting a crooked number.
In hindsight, this was most crucial half-inning of the night. Especially for Cornelius (3-1).
“I knew he was gonna do great. He’s done great for us all year,” said St. Pius’ pitching ace, junior Hayden Walker. “He has that mindset, that killer instinct. That’s what helps get him through the tough times.”
In the bottom of the first, Grant Smith walked to lead off, and then Lackner unloaded on a fastball from Artesia starter A.J. Ferguson and shipped it over the right-field wall.
“From (watching) Grant, I saw that he was struggling to find the zone,” Lackner said. “I figured, first pitch he would try to get one over.”
Cesar Garcia followed with a single. He stole second base. He stole third base. And then he had that rarity, the straight steal of the plate for a 3-1 edge.
“I did it earlier in the year against Valencia,” said Garcia, who transferred from Los Lunas two years ago. “He had a very long delivery, and it wasn’t called (by McCoy). It was just instinct at that point.”
Artesia had very little going against Cornelius the rest of the way. There were a couple of base runners here and there, but no serious threats. Catcher J.R. Bustamante had all three Artesia hits.
Meanwhile, Garcia added a sac fly in the second, and the aforementioned Bulldog errors made it 5-1 in the fifth. The Sartans piled up in the middle of the infield as the last out was recorded.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said the New Mexico State-bound Smith, the Sartans’ shortstop. “One I’ve been chasing for four years. But it’s greater than I expected.”
ST. PIUS 5, ARTESIA 2
Artesia 100 000 1 — 2 3 2
St. Pius 310 010 x — 5 5 0
Batteries: A, A.J. Ferguson, Collin Turner (2) and J.R. Bustamante. SP, Matthew Cornelius, Jacob McCoy (7) and Brayden Peyton. Win: Cornelius (3-1). Loss: Ferguson. Leading hitters: A, Bustamante 3-4, 3B, 2B, run. SP, Cesar Garcia 1-3, SF, 3 SBs; Josh Lackner 1-3, HR, 2RBIs. Records: SP 24-5; A 21-10.