OZARK – The thought of Justin Atchison stayed in Blake Hultgren’s mind for most of Saturday afternoon.
Willard’s senior shortstop knew how proud âCoach Atchâ would have been to see the Tigers in the state championship game. His former assistant coach, after whom he lives his life, died in a hunting accident in 2018.
Grain Valley recovered from 7-2 to take an 8-7 lead in the bottom of the seventh. Willard had three strikeouts to force extras, win the program’s first championship or finish second in the state.
Hultgren didn’t want the Tigers to win the title again for âAtchâ. Willard finished third in 2019 after relinquishing a two-point lead with two strikeouts in the seventh inning of the semi-final game.
âI prayed to God,â Hultgren said. “I thought of him instantly. I knew we were going to win and I knew God was going to help us.”
Hultgren watched and prayed from the canoe at US Baseball Park as Cooper Hampton led in the bottom of the seventh with a single. Kade Biellier followed with one of his own. Two batters later, Elliott Friend tied the score with a single RBI before Grain Valley intentionally stepped on the two-out-loaded bases.
Sophomore Kyden McMain has stepped into a storyline that children dream of when they play in their backyard growing up.
McMain rocked and made contact. A ground ball found a gap between first and second as he raised his arms.
The Tigers stormed the field to celebrate by winning the program’s first-ever state title with a 9-8 victory at the MSHSAA Class 5 State Championship.
âI saw the ball and knew it had passed,â said McMain. “We’ve never won a state championship and doing it for our seniors after all the hardship we’ve been through to get here was pretty cool.”
Saturday’s moment was two and a half years of adversity in the works.
Atchison, a beloved assistant trainer, was killed in a hunting accident at age 24 in November 2018.
He always visited Willard’s head coach Scott McGee at his home just to hang out and talk. The two dreamed of the possibility of bringing a state title to Willard.
Atchison’s death took a heavy toll on Willard’s baseball players and community. The backs of their hats read “Atch” and many in the American Baseball Park crowd wore T-shirts with his various quotes on them.
âIt’s just interesting how his legacy has survived through so many children and other children making better decisions away from the pitch and everything in between because of the wisdom he has provided to people,â he said. McGee said. “He still has a huge impact on this program and on these kids.”
Atchison was in the hearts of the Tigers months later when they advanced to the state semifinals. With a two-point lead with two strikeouts early in the seventh, the Tigers allowed three runs and narrowly missed.
The Tigers believed they would be able to catch up until 2020. Willard was the No.1 team in the state and was in the Top 40 nationally with several college prospects on the roster.
Willard’s 2020 team never saw the pitch as the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many believed that Willard’s shot at a state title was gone.
The 2021 team set out to prove people wrong – it wasn’t going to be just a year of rebuilding. The Tigers didn’t seem the best at first, but they slowly looked like a team capable of putting on a special race.
Dalen Stewart’s left arm paved the way for the Tigers. He was sensational in a one-hit shutout in the state quarterfinal before leading the team to a semi-final victory on Friday to put the Tigers in the championship game.
For a team that had been through so much adversity, the way the Tigers secured their state title was entirely appropriate.
âWe kept coming back,â McGee said.
Willard started off by taking the lead with a Biellier RBI brace in the first after a brace from Cooper Hampton. Evan Gaunt scored a single in the second and was brought home after McMain’s triple RBI. McMain was brought home on a reluctance to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead.
Grain Valley chipped in in the third and fourth. Jacob Grasher scored on the choice of a second defensive player before Cole Keller scored after Parker Stone’s triple RBI to make it a 3-2 game.
The Tigers looked like they’d run away in the fourth when they added three points to take a 7-2 lead. Gaunt was pushed by an RBI brace before the Grain Valley wide receiver tried to throw a runner in third place and the ball went off. Landon Moore scored on the play as Gaunt moved up to third.
Gaunt was brought home after Hultgren placed a sacrificial volley in the middle to make it a five-point game.
But Willard never allows it to be that easy.
Grain Valley scored four points in the fifth and two in the sixth to take an 8-7 lead – putting some doubt in the minds of those at Vault Willard.
The Tigers kept their hopes up with a rally in the bottom of the seventh with Hampton and Biellier with back-to-back singles and McMain with the biggest success in Willard history.
âIt’s just a huge feeling,â Hultgren said. “It’s like, it’s not specific. It’s just like ‘shit, we just won, we just did it, we did what everyone thought was impossible.'”
Hultgren and McGee couldn’t help but smile when asked about the former program assistant – someone who continues to inspire the Willard program every day.
Hultgren said he knew “Coach Atch” is in Heaven with the biggest smile.
McGee knows the impact his former assistant and player had on his players helped them win a championship.
âOur lives are meant to impact other people,â McGee said. âHe did that; he impacted other people. It allows his legacy to live on there. There are a lot of people in this world who don’t impact anyone else and He did it.
“I hope everyone who follows this story can see that if you can make an impact on other people it makes the biggest difference in the world.”
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist for the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at [email protected] or Twitter on @WyattWheeler_NL. He is also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.