GRANVILLE — Mike McLeod doesn’t hesitate to call senior Zach Hickman his ace of the Wheeling Park baseball pitching staff.
It’s a designation, McLeod admits, that comes with an interesting asterisk.
“He’s our ace, but he’s not at his best if you need him to go out and pitch seven innings,” McLeod said May 23, after the Patriots knocked off Morgantown High, 4-2, at Mylan Park, for the Region I championship. “If we started him, we may not have been able to finish with him.”
So, McLeod, kept his “ace” up his sleeve, so to speak. He held Hickman out of a 10-inning affair in game 1 — a 7-6 win by the Patriots — of the series and then held on to him a little longer in game 2.
“When we didn’t see him out there at the beginning, I sort of figured maybe he was holding on to him in case we played a third game,” MHS head coach Mark McCarty said.
Instead, McLeod said he was looking for the right situation to present itself Wednesday.
“Basically, I said if we get in a situation where we’re up by a run or two, that’s when we would use him,” McLeod said. “We started a freshman (Dylan Gongola) and we got four innings from him, which is more than what we figured going in. We put it in Zach’s hands after that.”
Hickman brought it home in dominant fashion. In three innings, he gave up two hits and a run and struck out three.
“We really have about five guys who are all pretty equal out there,” Hickman said when told McLeod considered him the ace of the staff. “If he calls me the ace, that gives me confidence. I was feeling very comfortable out there today. I just tried to stay ahead of the hitters. My slider was working really well.”
With the win, the Patriots advance to their fourth state tournament in five seasons. Wheeling Park will find out its first-round opponent at the conclusion of the other regional finals.
“It’s a big moment for this team to get back to the state tournament,” Hickman said. “We missed out last season. We’re looking for a better experience. I can’t wait.”
The Mohigans took a 1-0 lead on Gongola in the second inning, when Colton Matthews scored on Preston Fox’s RBI single, but that was all MHS could muster against the freshman over four innings.
“We definitely needed more hits today,” McCarty said. “We hit the ball, but we didn’t hit it with authority like we have for most of the season.
“We hit a lot of balls right at them. They ended up hitting more balls away from us than we did away from them. That’s baseball. We got beat in a good baseball game today.”
The Patriots took control in the third, when Jarrod Jones’ single scored Jacob Shia and Trevor Thomas. Wheeling Park tacked on two more in the fourth when Shia and Thomas came away with run-scoring singles, both with two outs.
That brought on Hickman, who gave up a run from a single, a stolen base, a passed ball and a sacrifice fly.
Only one MHS runner reached third base the rest of the way.
“We knew they had a scrappy team, but we felt comfortable once we had Zach in,” McLeod said. “We liked having him out there in that situation on the road, because he is more even-keeled. He was the right guy for us right there.”
Shia scored twice and had two hits for the Patriots and Thomas, Jones and Ross Salvatori each had two hits for Wheeling Park.
Caleb Taylor led the Mohigans with two singles.