A year ago in the Class 3A East Region II title against Reservoir, River Hill baseball senior Eje Okojie had a golden opportunity to walk it off for the Hawks with the bases loaded and no outs.
However, Okojie struck out and the Gators went on to win the game in extra innings. That was on the forefront of Okojie’s mind entering Tuesday’s regional final rematch.
The senior had been struggling in recent weeks and made sure to put extra time in the batting cage leading up to the game. His hard work paid dividends, making sure what happened last year wouldn’t repeat itself.
Okojie launched a pair of no-doubt home runs with five RBIs, including a second-inning grand slam that powered top-seed River Hill to a 7-0 win over No. 3 seed Reservoir. The Hawks advance to the 3A state quarterfinals where the eight regional champions will be reseeded based on regular-season record.
“It felt amazing,” Okojie said. “Coming into this game it was all about bases loaded, no outs because I was in that position and I struck out. Then we didn’t score any runs. I got a golden [chance] today with the opportunity with the bases loaded and I couldn’t repeat what I did the year before. I had to take advantage of that opportunity. It’s just amazing knowing that I was able to set the tone for the game along with Brady Young and then just being able to not worry about anything.”
Reservoir started the game with back-to-back hits off Young. The senior quickly settled in, getting the lead runner on a sacrifice bunt and then getting Cameron Whitehead to ground into a 5-4-3 double play to close out the inning. The Hawks’ offense fed off their defense immediately with Okojie’s leadoff solo shot to deep left-center field.
Young orchestrated a scoreless second and River Hill (16-4) added to its lead in the bottom half. Whitehead walked a trio of Hawks and Ryan Walsh extended the lead with a base hit to left. Then it was Okojie’s turn once again. The senior pulverized Whitehead’s breaking ball over the left-center field fence, extending the advantage to 6-0.
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Reservoir (12-8) had its best opportunity to cut into the lead in the fourth after Quinn Dean’s leadoff double. However, Young induced three consecutive flyouts to right fielder Jake Miller to get out of trouble and preserve the shutout.
“It’s genuinely a blessing, you know when you don’t have to do everything by yourself and can count on everyone behind you,” Young said. “I knew that if I put it down the middle and they hit it I knew it would be caught, I didn’t even have to turn around. Jake Miller did a great job in right field catching those three hard-hit balls. So, I just knew if they made contact the play was going to be made and it just gave me so much confidence.”
Cole Folkenberg came on in relief for the Gators after Whitehead’s 3 2/3 innings and kept the Hawks off the board in the fourth and fifth. Dean got his second hit of the game to start the sixth, but Walsh was there to turn his second 5-4-3 inning-ending double play of the game.
“I thought we actually hit the ball pretty well, they made some great plays,” Reservoir coach Adam Leader said. “This field is superfast and they just played really well in the field. We had three double plays and hit the ball hard just at people especially in that first inning where I thought we were kind of getting rolling and they got out of it pretty nicely. You’ve got to tip your cap to their whole team, their offense, their defense and especially their pitcher did a great job.”
The Hawks added another run in the seventh on Colin Chan’s RBI single to left. That was all set up by Riley Finkelston’s speed on the base paths with two of his four stolen bases in the frame.
Then Young came on for the seventh, retiring the Gators in order to complete the five-hit shutout. In front of several former players, the Hawks moved one step closer to capturing their ultimate goal, the program’s second state title and first since 2009.
“We’ve had a thing the last few weeks, saying, ‘How many more practices do we have’?” River Hill coach Craig Estrin said. “We said we have seven more practices to get us through Memorial Day. River Hill hasn’t made the state quarterfinals in quite some time, I like our chances moving forward. I don’t know who we’ll play, but we’ve got Henry Zatkowski pitching Friday and I feel pretty confident when he’s on the mound.”