LEXINGTON — There were many heroes for Ashley Ridge on Monday night as the Swamp Foxes claimed their first state championship with a dramatic 4-3 ninth-inning victory over Byrnes in game three of the championship series for the Class AAAA title.
It started with staff ace Austin Livingston, who gutted out the complete-game effort to avenge his loss in the first game of the series last Tuesday. But none came up bigger than sophomore shortstop Jason Miller. The seldom used infielder was pressed into duty when Swamp Foxes coach BJ Bellush had to suspend a couple of players before the start of the championship series and Miller took over at short.
His ninth-inning sacrifice fly to right field easily scored courtesy runner Jacob Thompson from third that set off of a wild celebration among the Ashley Ridge faithful.
“When I got my chance there, I didn’t want it to go another inning,” Miller said. “It’s an incredible feeling. These guys have worked hard all year and to finally see it pay off is the best feeling in the world.”
Bellush barely saw the winning run cross home plate. After Thompson tagged on the fly ball, Bellush slowly started moving down the left-field line until he broke into a full sprint when Thompson crossed home plate.
“That was just a great baseball game between two great teams,” Bellush said. “With (Byrnes starting pitcher) Alex Cunningham throwing the way he was, I didn’t know how many more chances we were going to get.”
Livingston matched Cunningham inning for inning. The Citadel commit scattered eight hits over nine innings with nine strikeouts and three walks. He improved to 11-1 on the season.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall all season,” Livingston said. “Nobody believed we could knock off Lexington twice to get here and then everybody thought we would lose to Byrnes. We loved being the underdog. This is what we lived for. There is absolutely no better feeling than this.”
It was a see-saw affair that both teams had chances to win in seven innings. The Swamp Foxes (31-2) left the bases loaded three times, including in the bottom of the seventh when they had the potential tying run thrown out at the plate. Each time they had the bases loaded with one out but until Miller came through in the ninth inning, Cunningham was up to the challenge to hold them at bay.
The Coastal Carolina commit only allowed five hits with 11 strikeouts, but his defense was his undoing. All four Swamp Foxes runs were unearned.
The Rebels (21-4) committed six errors, including two in the costly ninth inning. Nick Bell opened by reaching on an error by the Byrnes second baseman. After a popout to third, Thompson stole second base, which caused the Rebels to intentionally walk Livingston to set up a force play. McColl Furman then hit a sharp grounder to third that went off the third baseman’s leg toward the Swamp Foxes dugout.
Bellush argued that the ball went into the dugout to no avail, but Miller took away any controversy when he drove the first pitch he saw to right field to score Thompson.
“Our guys have made those plays in every single game this season,” Byrnes coach Michael Maus said. “It’s disappointing, but we have to be able to pick each other up. Alex has put us on his back all season, and we couldn’t ask anything else of him. We just didn’t make plays behind him.”
The Rebels have lost in the championship series for three straight years.