Going into Friday night’s WCAC Championship series opener at the University of Maryland, many believed that the No. 8 seed Bishop McNamara Mustangs were overmatched against the second-seeded Paul VI Catholic Panthers—the winners of both regular season contests between the two teams.
However, after knocking off top-seeded St. John’s in the quarterfinals and defeating No. 4 St. Mary’s Ryken in a 2-0 semifinal series sweep, McNamara continued their playoff run by taking game one of the conference championship series 5-1 over the Panthers.
“I expected us to be playing for the title from the beginning of the season. We lost a couple of pretty key guys in the middle of the year, but once we got some pieces back I thought we could get here,” McNamara head coach Larry Prange said. “My players play hard and right now they’re playing as good as they can.”
In an overall display of McNamara’s fundamental hitting and strong pitching from the junior starter Tayler Stiles, the Mustangs got off to a quick start in the top of the first inning with a leadoff double off the fence from senior centerfielder Jack Hopkins.
And after Hopkins advanced to third on a groundout hit by junior first baseman Connor Hax, a sac fly from senior shortstop Bradley Sullivan brought him in, lifting the Mustangs to an early 1-0 lead.
Following a scoreless second inning for both teams, Stiles walked Paul VI’s junior outfielder Lucas Martinez with the bases loaded in the bottom of the third, which tied the game at 1-1.
Despite only scoring one run off of two hits in the first three innings of the game, the Mustangs took charge in the top of the fourth by recording four runs off of seven hits.
After an RBI double was hit to right field by Stiles, junior catcher Cory Fields recorded an RBI single, and senior third baseman Coye Gerald tallied a 2 RBI single, McNamara jumped out to a 5-1 lead over Paul VI—a deficit that the Panthers would not be able to surmount in the final three innings of the game.
“Paul VI tied the game in the third inning but the big key was that we came up in the fourth and answered them,” Prange said. “They scored and the momentum had shifted to their side a little but it was huge that we answered.”
For the rest of the way, the McNamara defense took over behind a focused Stiles who overcame the championship game jitters that previously led him to hit the first batter he faced and walk Martinez with the bases loaded in the third.
“I started out a little cold but once all those nerves got out of my head I felt good,” he said. “I was just thinking step back, relax, keep the ball down, and throw strikes.”
En route to victory, Stiles recorded six strikeouts while only surrendering one run to a team that had outscored the Mustangs 10-5 in two games earlier this season.
Just one win away from a WCAC championship, Hopkins will take the mound to pitch in game two of the series on Saturday after starting in centerfield on Friday and delivering four hits in the leadoff position.
Although McNamara’s cinderella playoff run has exceeded Hopkins’ expectations, the senior will not stop at anything short of a conference title going into Saturday’s game.
“We didn’t expect to be here but knew we could. We knew that we worked hard enough to do it but now that it’s happening its just unbelievable,” he said. “Today meant a lot but it doesn’t mean everything. We got the first win and are feeling comfortable but we’re not done yet. We want to finish it on Saturday.”