Hope sprung eternal Friday when Hays Rebel Zane Lilljedahl nervously watched a shallow fly ball to left field drop between a pair of Westlake Chaparrals.
By the time he had sped down to first base, Lilljedahl’s teammates had already exploded out of the dugout to celebrate his walk-off RBI single that carried Hays to a wild 7-6, 10-inning come-from-behind victory over Westlake.
While it wasn’t the first time he’d been an late-inning hero, Lilljedahl cherished the ability to not only be a part of the Rebels’ inaugural victory at its new on-campus stadium, but also inch the program closer to a playoff berth.
“It was an amazing team effort to come back,” Lilljedahl said. “Everyone was on-board and everyone is doing their job and they want to be a part of the game and win it like that.”
Lilljedahl’s game-winning RBI capped off an effort where Hays rallied from a one-run deficit in each of the three extra innings.
Rebel head coach James Howard lauded the team’s perseverance and persistence, which is something his staff tries to instill in them. “Clutch” relief pitching, along with stringing together timely base hits also played a key role in the victory.
“They persevered today and they showed great spirit,” Howard said. “We tell them to be mentally tough when facing adversity and they showed that.”
Hays’ Seth Stephenson credited constant adjustments at the plate, especially against a variety of Chaparral pitchers, as a way Rebel batters kept pace with Westlake and orchestrated their comebacks.
“It was just never giving up and keep fighting and chipping away and good things will happen,” Stephenson said.
Hays (23-6, 9-5) grabbed an early 3-2 lead after four frames, highlighted by RBI singles from Lilljedahl and Garrison Vaughn.
Westlake fought back for a run in the fifth frame to tie game at 3-3 and eventually force extra innings. The Chaps surged ahead by scoring a run in the eighth inning to take a 4-3 advantage.
Hays’ initial comeback bid took place in the bottom half of the frame when they loaded the bases for Stephenson, who drove in a run on a fielder’s choice to tie the contest at 4-4.
After conceding a run in the top of the ninth, Hays responded in-kind in the bottom half of the frame via an RBI single from Uli Tovar, retying the game at 5-5.
Undeterred, Westlake responded right back in the top of the tenth with a run on a bloop RBI single that allowed the Chaps to recapture the lead at 6-5 and all the momentum.
Hays, however, didn’t blink and drew even in the bottom of the tenth on an RBI single from Vaughn, which scored Stephenson to knot the contest at 6-6.
With two outs and runners at first and second base, Lilljedahl got just enough contact to place the ball in an area between shortstop and left field.
“I was super nervous. I was hoping it was going to drop down,” Lilljedahl said.
Armed with the victory, Hays takes hold of sole possession of third place in 25-6A and further solidified a possible playoff berth.
The Rebels close the regular season against Del Valle Friday at home at 7 p.m.
Howard said the moment was necessary in “getting over the hump” and winning a tight ball game. Earlier this season, Hays had lost a 10-inning road affair to Westlake.
“We worked for it as a team for sure,” Lilljedahl said. “It was a great time for us and it’s going to help us down the road.”