YORKTOWN, Ind. — As Corbin Malott watched his final pitch fall into a Trojan mitt, he and Aydan Decker-Pretty tossed their gloves to the sky and bumped shoulders in mid-air.
The travel-ball tandem, like many of their fellow seniors, worked their whole lives for this moment, and they took advantage by leading New Castle baseball to its first sectional title since 2014 with a 3-2 win over Guerin Catholic at Yorktown High School.
"It feels amazing ... we've had this same team for three years now and it just finally feels good to put it together," Malott said. "I can't even explain it. It feels so good."
Malott's teammates tackled him to the ground, their way of saying thanks for his 3.2 perfect closeout innings in the championship and 7.2 scoreless total innings between the team's three postseason games.
Green confetti rained onto the diamond and unintentionally blew into the Golden Eagles' dugout as the Trojans rejoiced. Then, barely allowing time for a players-only photo with the trophy, the guys insisted their moms join them.
Onlooking was first-year head coach Josh Cooper. He joined the program at the last minute and watched his team (16-5-1) begin the season 10-0 before skidding down the stretch, even after finally debuting its newly-renovated home field.
Yet New Castle regrouped at the right time, overcoming a seventh-inning error that caused extra innings in their first-round contest against Hamilton Heights, which beat the Trojans 1-0 in least season's sectional championship, before winning 4-3. The Trojans then responded to Jay County tying the semifinal match 2-2 in the fifth inning with four combined runs in the final two frames.
More IHSAA baseball news: Wapahani baseball tops Frankton 15-10 to win its third sectional title in a row
Guerin Catholic led 1-0 after the top of the first inning, and New Castle rebounded once more with a two-run homer from senior, and Josh's son, Eli Cooper. The team never quit.
"To be honest, it's a huge relief. After we lost those four games in a row in-conference, there was a lot of pressure. I was feeling the pressure," Josh said. "But from the week leading up to sectionals, these guys were on point. Rain delays, they're wanting to get in the cage and hit. Very mature, very active, very in it and very focused, so I was real proud leading into sectionals of where their mindset was."
While Malott (team-high 1.323 OPS) carried the Trojans' offense against the Patriots with three hits (two doubles) and two RBI's, Eli tallied all three of their RBI's in the championship.
Eli leads the team with 23 RBI's on the season but has endured some rough slumps, and he entered the title bout "pressing" and without a postseason hit. Josh said he took Eli to a local training facility in between the semifinals and championship to make some adjustments with his elbow, and that combined with a more patenting approach at the plate made the pivotal difference.
Eli's two hits were the only New Castle knocks that went for extra bases against he Golden Eagles, so it probably wouldn't have won without his clutch performance. Malott and Josh were proud that he stepped-up in the biggest moment, and Eli said it reset his confidence.
"I was the guy that wanted to make sure that I was harder on him than I was on anybody," Josh said. "It's been really nice just to let him play, something I probably should have done a long time ago. It's a lot of fun, something I wouldn't change for the world."
After he notched his second hit, a RBI-double, Guerin Catholic intentionally-walked Eli in his final plate appearance. Several Trojans cracked a smile at that decision.
"That's first time that's actually ever happened to me," Eli said. "It's crazy."
It would've been all for not, however, had Malott not continued his tremendous season on the mound. The starter, senior Trighton Cummings, was solid and allowed seven hits and two runs, one earned, in 3.1 innings of work. But after he allowed a score and two more baserunners in the fourth inning, Josh decided Malott needed to carry the Trojans home.
Despite pitching two innings earlier in the day, Malott looked sharp. By the end of the contest his ERA sank to 1.02 on the season, a significant improvement over his combined 4.11 ERA as a starter in his freshman and junior campaigns.
Other high school baseball news: Cowan baseball beats Wes-Del 5-3 to win its 2nd straight IHSAA sectional championship
It's not a change most pitchers are happy about, yet Josh said Malott's a "gamer" who would play catcher and centerfield at the same time if he could. If anything, the coaching staff has to restrain his enthusiasm.
But that's what the team loves about Malott. His passion is infectious, and Eli said its a confidence-booster to have a guy like that as a leader. The Purdue University commit wants the ball in the biggest spots, so he embraced his new high-leverage role.
It's clearly paid-off.
"I'm fine with with being a closer because that means I can pitch all three games in sectionals, and that's what I did today, Malott said. "I love being a closer. I love coming in and shutting it down."
The Trojans' vibrant post-game celebration was about more than just breaking through. Having played most of this season's home games at Shenandoah High School and Josh joining the program just days before their first game, New Castle banded together amid unconventional chaos to become a winner.
There are nine seniors on the roster, most of who played under Josh growing up and knew he was the right man to lead them through unideal circumstances. That familiarity and trust allowed him, and a strong coaching staff, to turn negatives into motivation.
"I didn't do more than anybody else ... Trey (Ball) did a great job with pitching staff ... Zak (Kellogg) does great with catching, Tyler (Smith) does great at first base," Josh said. "It's a total team effort."
But with his son graduating, there is no guarantee Josh will return to the helm. For now, the players are treating this as the last ride.
"Tell you the truth, I have no idea (if I'll come back). I really don't," Josh said. "No clue. I don't want to think about that. I'll think about that after this is over."
New Castle will face Wawasee (13-14) at Oak Hill in the regional semifinals at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 4. The next round is uncharted territory for this group, and Malott thinks he and his teammates can't let their tendency to focus on the moment's significance affect their focus.
Josh is confident his boys, with the help of assistant coach Rodney Scott's scouting information, will be ready for the challenge. After the turbulence New Castle's endured, it should be prepared for anything.
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world to be able to to be able to share this with them," Josh said. "To be able to see them grow through that and come here and take care of business ... I'm just very proud of them."
Here are the game results for the other East Central Indiana teams that didn't advance past sectionals:
More IHSAA sectional results
Muncie Central falls to Anderson
Muncie Central (6-19) on Monday lost its Mt. Vernon Sectional 9 semifinal game to Anderson 4-2. The Bearcats were led by junior Logan Grady (two hits), and junior Corbin Durbin took the pitching loss after allowing five hits, three walks and four earned runs in four innings.
Delta loses to Guerin Catholic
Delta (9-17) on Monday lost its Yorktown Sectional 24 semifinal game to Guerin Catholic 14-4 in five innings. Eagles seniors Brady Jennings (three walks) and Parker Faletic (one hit, one walk, one RBI) led the offense, and senior Nick Crabtree took the pitching loss after allowing six walks, four hits and four earned runs in three innings.
Wes-Del topped by Cowan
Wes-Del (16-9) on Monday lost its Anderson Prep Sectional 55 semifinal game to Cowan (16-9) 5-3. Warriors senior Alex Light hit a home run on the first pitch of the game, and junior Travis bunch tallied two hits and one RBI. Senior Zack Todd took the pitching loss after allowing 13 hits and four earned runs in all six innings.
Shenandoah beat by Centerville
Shenandoah (14-11-1) on Monday lost its Sectional 41 semifinal game to host Centerville 4-2. The Raiders were led by Dylan McDaniel, who pitched all 6 innings with 10 strikeouts, and also had a homer and a double.
Blue River beats Seton Catholic, falls to Union City in championship
Blue River (10-9) on Monday beat host Seton Catholic 18-3 in its Sectional 56 semifinal game before losing to Union City 9-4 in the championship.
In the semifinal, the Vikings were led by junior Clayton Turley with two hits (one home run) and five RBI's, and junior Layke Leonard earned the pitching win after allowing just two hits and zero earned runs with 10 K's in five innings.
In the championship, Blue River was led by Turley again with a three-run homer, and junior Garrett Grim took the pitching loss after allowing nine hits and four earned runs in 5.1 innings.
Gus Martin is a sports reporter at The Star Press. Follow him on Twitter @GusMartin_SP, and contact him at email@example.com or 765-729-4742.
This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: New Castle baseball wins first IHSAA sectional title since 2014