ZANESVILLE — Now that was worth the two-and-a-half hour trip.
It’s been quite the comeback for the Jackson High School baseball team this season, especially its worst-to-first turnaround in the Southeastern Ohio Athletic League.
And, putting it mildly, it was quite the comeback against the Zanesville Blue Devils on Wednesday in the SEOAL Day of Champions championship game at Jay Payton Field in Zanesville.
Trailing 7-0 following four innings, the Ironmen staged an improbable and dramatic comeback by scoring nine unanswered runs to prevail 9-7 and capture the SEOAL baseball championship.
“It’s amazing is all I can say. It’s really hard to describe in words,” said first-year Jackson coach Lance Rolston. “Before I decided to even take this job and be a part of this program, all I heard was that these kids don’t play hard, they’re not well-mannered and they don’t want to do things the right way. From day one, I challenged them to never give up on themselves because if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else does. Throughout the season, we’ve had some low times and some high times, but we’ve always tried to understand that we have to believe in ourselves.”
The league baseball title is the Ironmen’s first since a co-championship in 1997, and only the fifth in school history.
The others, all outright, came in 1976, 1982 and 1996.
But back then, Jackson didn’t have to play a Day of Champions contest, nor did it have to make the two-and-a-half-hour trek to the designated site of Zanesville.
The Ironmen, which won the SEOAL South Division, rallied past the powerful Blue Devils, which won the North Division for the second straight spring.
Both teams had taken 10 divisional games, but Zanesville, which had two tilts cancelled, went undefeated in the league at 10-0.
The loss was only Zanesville’s second in its two years as a member of the SEOAL.
It was also the Blue Devils’ second setback this season against 21 wins.
Jackson, a charter member of the 83-year old conference, won its first league championship in any sport since expansion of the SEOAL to 10 schools.
And did the Ironmen ever rally to win.
After allowing an unearned run in the second and six runs on six hits in the third, Jackson senior ace Tyrus Coyan finally got the best of the Blue Devils.
He stranded two Blue Devils in the fourth, then sliced the deficit to 7-5 with a thunderous two-out grand slam home run.
The Ironmen then scored twice in the sixth to tie, setting up the go-ahead and eventual game-winning runs in the top of the seventh.
Sophomore Eric Landrum laced a two-out two-run single to left, scoring Anthony Malone and Chris Comer, who both drew back-to-back one-out walks.
Landrum then got defensive on the Devils, first making a routine catch before diving and robbing another potential gapper in the next at-bat.
With the Devils down to their final out, a ground ball to senior shortstop Stephen Ferris was cleanly fielded and fired on to first.
With that, the Ironmen stormed out of the dugout and mobbed one another in celebration, as some of their supporters who made the long drive joined in.
By the time the celebration had finally calmed down, the stunned Blue Devils were long gone from the field, while the Ironmen were hanging around for plenty of picture opportunities.
At long last amid the congratulations and celebratory hugs, Rolston gave a postgame media interview.
He said he was most happy for his six seniors, which have endured two previous coaching changes and a 10th-place finish in last year’s SEOAL.
Literally, this year’s Ironmen went from worst to first.
“This senior class, I’m their third coach in four years. They are out there celebrating and enjoying this and soaking this up, and they should be,” said Rolston. “They decided to come in from day one and take every word that I said and our coaching staff said and absorb it like a sponge. They decided that this might work so let’s give it a shot. Everything stems from our six solid seniors. They are our captains and great leaders. We go as far as they go.”
Early on, Coyan and the Ironmen weren’t going very far.
Facing Zanesville hurler Cole Hudson, Jackson did not register a basehit until the fifth inning.
Senior Bruce Smith led the game off with a walk, but was stranded at second after he stole.
After Hudson retired the Ironmen 1-2-3 in the next two innings, Ferris drew a leadoff walk but was stranded at second after a wild pitch.
Hudson had recorded three straight strikeouts, and appeared to be in control with the 7-0 Blue Devils’ advantage.
“In games like this, you have to have some things go your way. Sometimes, when it trickles downhill, it comes faster than what you think. We didn’t have anything go our way in the first four innings, and it felt like we got down 7-0 very fast,” said Rolston. “Zanesville is a great team and very well-coached, but we had 12 big outs left and we wanted them to make plays. When you do that, especially at this level, good things can happen.”
A Kyle Newsom bunt for a basehit, followed by a walk to Landrum, seemed to turn the tide squarely in the Ironmen’s favor.
With runners on the corners following a fielder’s choice, Smith singled to left to score Newsom and put the Ironmen on the board.
Ferris then followed with his second walk of the day, setting up the grand slam shot by Coyan, which easily cleared the right-centerfield fence.
For the Ironmen ace, it was his 10th round-tripper of the season.
“I pulled Tyrus aside and I told him that with the bases loaded, they couldn’t throw around him. I told him to, mentally, look for a pitch to drive out. Physically, just let your body react,” said Rolston. “He is such a smooth hitter. He let the body take over and great things happened.”
For the Ironmen themselves, it was a whole new ballgame.
“One inning, I pulled them (Ironmen) down the line and kind of ripped into them a little bit because I didn’t think our mental intensity was there,” said Rolston. “We thrive on getting mentally ready to play. I just told these guys, none of them who have ever been in this situation, to enjoy the moment. We’re here for a reason and we deserve to be here. I just said I don’t care what happens from this point on, let’s go out there and smile and have fun and enjoy the game. If they score 30, they score 30. If we come back and tie or win, we do.”
The Ironmen did just that.
Coyan, energized by his grand slam, kept the momentum going by retiring the Devils in order.
In the sixth, and with Brandon Smith on the mound for Zanesville, the Ironmen forged the 7-7 tie with their seventh run on their seventh hit.
Nathaniel Haller led off with a pinch-hit single, then scored on the next at-bat — a double to the fence in left by Newsom.
Two batters later, and with two outs, Smith singled to right to bring in the tying run.
In all, the Ironmen scored eight of their nine runs with two outs.
None bigger than the pair in the seventh, though, which Landrum drove in for the 9-7 lead.
Meanwhile, Coyan had regained his pitching form, facing four Devils in the sixth like he did in the first and second.
Coyan stranded two runners in the fourth, and one apiece at first in the first, third and fifth frames.
He walked just two of the 33 Devils he encountered, and struck out four.
“He struggled early on the mound and I almost pulled him out,” said Rolston of Coyan. “But he decided he wanted to stay in. I think from that moment on, he realized he had to step up and he did.”
Brandon Smith suffered the loss, allowing two earned runs and two walks in facing just 13 batters.
Jackson’s two seventh-inning runs were unearned, kept alive by an error off the bat of Haller. Zanesville’s other error occurred on Landrum’s game-winning single.
The Ironmen, conversely, overcame five errors, and a no-hit bid by Hudson which was broken up in the fifth.
Hudson had a no-decision in allowing five earned runs on four walks with nine Ks.
He saw 23 Jackson hitters altogether.
Both teams collected eight hits, as Hudson and Smith surrendered four apiece for Zanesville.
Hudson’s final hit allowed was a single to right by Malone, which immediately followed Coyan’s home run.
J.T. Bunting and Wade Kaido had two hits apiece for the Blue Devils, including in the third when they knocked back-to-back singles before scoring on a double by catcher Shayne Miller.
Kaido had previously singled in the first before Bunting singled to left in the sixth.
Miller’s two-bagger found the gap in left, as did Adam Young’s which drove in Miller.
Hudson helped himself with a single which scored Young, setting up a two-run home run by shortstop Corey Hull.
From there, though, Coyan and the Ironmen defense did in the Devils.
After all five errors through the first four innings, the Red and White were flawless in the field after that.
Which paved the way for the offensive charge, though it was not the first comeback by the Ironmen this season.
In a 12-9 triumph at Portsmouth, Jackson amassed eight runs in the last at-bat.
This time, it scored nine unanswered over the final three frames.
“I told the team two weeks ago at Portsmouth to remember this feeling,” said Rolston. “We came back and scored eight runs in the seventh, and that feeling we would have to take into another game down the stretch.”
That game — in the SEOAL championship — was on Wednesday.
Tonight’s game with Greenfield McClain has been cancelled, so the Ironmen — now 16-3 overall — will open Division II sectional tournament play on Monday against the winner of Saturday’s Vinton County-Marietta match.
The Ironmen are the top seed in the Division II sectional.
“In the tournament, you know how it is that Cinderella teams can come up and bite you,” said Rolston. “These guys have to come back ready to play Monday. It’s win and continue to play or lose and go home.”
First pitch for Monday’s bout is set for 5 p.m. at Haller Field.
All sectional tickets cost $5.
For today and Friday, though, the Ironmen will savor a special SEOAL championship.
“It’s been 11 years since we’ve been here (winning SEOAL). These guys are enjoying this way too much and to be honest, I am too,” said Rolston.
Indeed, it was worth the two-and-a-half hour trip.
* * *
Jackson 000 052 2 — 9 8 5
Zanesville 016 000 0 — 7 8 2
Tyrus Coyan and Chris Comer
Cole Hudson, Brandon Smith (6) and Shayne Miller
W — Tyrus Coyan; L — Brandon Smith
HR — Corey Hull, Zanesville, one on, 3rd inning; Tyrus Coyan, Jackson, three on, 5th inning
JHS: Tyrus Coyan 7IP, 7R, 6ER, 8H, 2BB, 5K, 33BF
ZHS: Cole Hudson 5IP, 5R, 5ER, 4H, 4BB, 9K, 23BF; Brandon Smith 2IP, 4R, 2ER, 4H, 2BB, 0K, 13BF