The Bel Air Bobcats cut it close once again Saturday at the 3A baseball championship game at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen.
But, as they have done throughout their 2013 campaign, the Bobcats found a way to win, beating the La Plata Warriors, 3-2, to capture the second state baseball crown in school history.
The Bobcats' last title run came in 1996. Bel Air made it to the state semifinal round in 2005 and 1979.
"I'm still trying to process all this," Bel Air head coach John Swanson said. "This is just phenomenal. What a great night for the boys. La Plata definitely came out to play. It was back and forth, and we made a couple of key plays. It could have gone either way."
Bel Air cashed in first on a trio of La Plata defensive miscues in the top of the second.
Richard Rivera led off the inning, reaching first on an infield throwing error, while Matt Hottman came up next and roped what looked to be a single up the middle. La Plata's center fielder threw over the cutoff man's head, and the ball bounced off the shinguard of the Warriors' catcher, allowing Rivera to motor around for the game's first run.
After Matt Wallace and Dylan Franz were retired via strikeout, Brandon Clifford and Nick Loiodice earned two-out walks to load the bases. J.D. Bruck then wailed a pitch to deep center, but it was chased down for the inning's final out.
"It's been our M.O. all year, to put pressure on the defense," Swanson said. "We were able to do that today. We missed a few plays here and there, but we battled. We battled all year, day in and day out. This is just a great group of young men. I'm speechless."
Bobcat hurler Ben Webber worked out of a jam in the bottom of the second, when the Warriors' leadoff hitter reached base on a dropped third strike, then moved to second on a balk. With man in scoring position and no one out, the Bobcats' retired the lead runner on a fielder's choice, and Webber coaxed fly outs from the following two batters to end the inning.
The Bobcats once again pounced on La Plata errors in the top of the fifth. Bruck led off and made it to first when his grounder to short was bobbled. Next up was Tyler Norcross, who hit a bouncer up the first base line. The Warriors' first baseman misplayed the ball, which skipped into right field, and Bruck cruised home for Bel Air's second run.
After moving over to third base on a fielder's choice, Bel Air pinch runner Trent Tolley tagged up and scored on Rivera's fly to shallow center field, making the score 3-0.
Webber left the game after four innings, having held the Warriors to just one hit, a single to the first La Plata hitter he faced.
"I just wanted to throw the ball over the plate, get strikes," Webber said. "When I kept it down, they were hitting ground balls. Our defense is amazing, so I wanted to get [La Plata] swinging the bats."
Norcross took over mound duties in the fifth and allowed a leadoff single before retiring the side. The next inning, however, La Plata worked Norcross for a leadoff walk, then scored its first run on a one-out, RBI double to left.
Back-to-back singles off the Bobcat reliever pushed another run across the plate, making the score 3-2 in Bel Air's favor. With men at the corners and one down, Norcross escaped the jam with an inning-ending double play, as first baseman Hottman caught a line drive, then quickly stepped on first to double up the runner.
"That was amazing, the play of the game right there," Norcross said. "I thought it was going through, but Matt caught it, and I saw that the runner was off first base."
In the bottom of the seventh, Norcross retired the side in order on a strike out and two fly balls.
"Tyler has done that all year," Swanson said. "I've had the opportunity work with him since he was a freshman. He's just another kind of athlete. He knows where to go and where he needs to be to get things done. It takes everyone around him to another level. It's just fun to watch him play."
Saturday's victory capped the Bobcats' most successful season in recent history, one that saw them win their final five regular-season games to capture the UCBAC's Chesapeake (upper) Division crown, then defeat Bo Manor, 8-3, in the conference championship matchup.
Bel Air began its post-season run with a 14-4 victory over Patterson in the opening round of the 3A North regional tournament. The Bobcats knocked off Hereford, 9-5, in the regional quarterfinals, then squared off with rival and division mate North Harford in the semifinals. Bel Air eked out a 5-4 win over the Hawks, then held off Eastern Tech in the 3A North final, winning 7-4 and capturing its first regional title since 2005.
The Bobcats end their 2013 campaign with an overall record of 20-5.