Things in and out of its control conspired against New Albany for the last two seasons, but the Eagles were tired of waiting for a trip to the state baseball tournament’s final weekend and made it happen Saturday against OCC rival Olentangy Orange.
When Brady Conley lost his balance and stumbled toward a brick wall on the first day of baseball practice in New Albany’s high school gymnasium in early February, he reached to brace himself and felt both a ligament and two bones in his left wrist rebel.
All the plans he had for his senior year seemed quite imperiled in that moment — one that seemed very far away Saturday afternoon when Conley wound up cradling the Division I Central regional championship trophy after a 3-1 victory over Ohio Capital Conference rival Olentangy Orange.
“Brady was finally cleared to play only three weeks ago,” New Albany coach Dave Starling said. “That young man, you wanna talk about stepping up, comeback player-of-the-year…whatever you want to call it. I just love that kid.”
Conley relieved with one on and no one out in the top of the fifth inning of a 1-1 game with second-ranked Olentangy Orange threatening to take the lead before a sun-soaked crowd at Dublin Coffman Stadium.
He retired the first two hitters he faced, but then hit lead-off man Caden Konczak with a curveball.
That brought Vanderbilt commit Matt Wolfe to the plate, the 4-for-4 hitting star of Orange’s 8-7 regional semifinal win over Westerville South, with men on first and second.
Two innings earlier, Wolfe faced New Albany starter Elijah Griffith with runners on second and third and one out and Orange (27-4) trailing, 1-0.
Griffith (6-1) induced Wolfe to foul out and then retired No. 3 hitter Josh Laisure on a fly to right.
“At that point in time, I’m just thinking, ‘How are we going to limit the damage?’ “ Starling said. “I didn’t want to go down more than one. When Elijah worked his way out of that, it was one of those, ‘Are you kidding me?’ moments.
Now, Conley was about to author another such escape for Starling and the Eagles (27-5).
First, though, Conley ran the count full on Wolfe, in part because of another errant curveball thrown behind his back.
So now both Orange runners were on the move, Conley had to throw his fastball and Wolfe and everyone in the ballpark knew it.
“I was just trying to throw a strike,” Conley said. “I try to let the hitters get themselves out.”
Second-baseman Mattox Meade caught Wolfe’s harmless pop-up and the sigh of relief from escaping another jam prompted a New Albany rally in the bottom of the frame.
Caden Robinson lined a lead-off single off the glove of Cole Cahill, who pitched well for Orange in going the distance, striking out eight and allowing six hits.
Robinson stole second on a very close play after seemingly being picked off, then came around to score when Andrew Ecleberry bounced a seeing-eye single through the spot at shortstop that Wolfe vacated to shadow Robinson on second.
Senior Ian Hoff’s double in the last of the sixth added an insurance run to New Albany’s 2-1 lead and Conley — who retired seven of the nine batters he faced — put the finishing touches on the win with a 1-2-3 seventh.
“All of us had 100 percent trust in Brady,” Hoff said. “We all knew what he could do. It’s really unfortunate he missed out on most of the season. But we’re as glad as we can be that he’s back for the playoffs.”
That sense of relief permeates the Eagles’ program as they head for a state semifinal game at 7 p.m. Friday against Walsh-Jesuit (26-3) at Akron’s Canal Park.
New Albany was 27-1 in 2019 before an upset loss in the regionals against Upper Arlington.
Last year, the Eagles had a once-in-a-lifetime starting staff — including twins Mike and Jack Sokol, now playing at Ohio State and Auburn, respectively — when COVID cancelled the season.
“When you have four Division I arms in your starting rotation and you’re told you can’t play one game…” Starling said, his eyes narrowing and brow furrowing at the memory. “To not get the opportunity, it was tough. These guys picked up some of that slack. They carried that weight on their shoulders all year long.”
Orange now shoulders a similar disappointment, but with Wolfe ( junior) and Cahill (sophomore) returning, the Pioneers have a power bat and reliable arm to build around.
“I think we played this game the way we were supposed to, we just didn’t get the timely hits that we needed,” Orange coach Tom Marker said. “Their pitcher threw strikes and commanded the zone and did a really good job. They brought the Conley kid in and he did the same.”
Bruce Hooley hosts the We Tackle Life podcast on iTunes and GooglePlay, hosts the Bruce Hooley Show from 5-7 p.mn. Monday-Friday on 98.9 FM The Answer in Columbus and posts faith-related content on the Bruce Hooley YouTube channel.