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Woodland shuts out Cass in pivotal region battle

Woodland junior Rowan Billings has been slowly working his way back from Tommy John surgery that repaired his injured right elbow.

The pitching ramp-up process, surely, hasn’t gone as quickly as Billings would have liked. However, the results continue to speak for themselves.

In a Region 7-5A matchup April 19 at Cass, Billings took a giant leap forward on the mound and might have helped earn himself another start — this one in the Class 5A state playoffs.

After lasting no more than four innings in any prior appearance, Billings went six strong frames against the rival Colonels. He limited Cass to one hit and one walk across six shutout innings during a 3-0 road win in Game 1 of a season-ending series.

“He’s been really great for us,” Wildcats head coach Matt Montgomery said of Billings. “He’s coming back from that [injury], and every week, he’s adding a few more pitches to his pitch count. …

“He didn’t really want to come out there. Coming out of the fifth, he looked at us and said, ‘Don’t even think about it.’ That’s the kind of person you want on the mound. That’s the kind of one that you need. You have got to have a dog that will get up there and compete, no matter what.”

Billings, who has now thrown a total of 19 innings this season, struck out seven, including the first three batters of the game. On the season, he’s now 4-0 overall and 3-0 in the region. His ERA is 0.37, and his WHIP is 0.79.

Despite the impressive final line, Billings faced an extremely tough situation in the fifth inning. Holding a 2-0 lead, Woodland (12-16, 5-8) saw Cass (5-23, 4-9) put the potential tying runs on base with an error and hit batsman to start the frame before a groundout moved them into scoring position with one out.

Billings, though, recorded a strikeout, and then he coaxed a grounder that shortstop Austin Sanders fielded and threw across the diamond to escape the jam.

“It would have been easy to press in a game that everybody knows means a good bit in the series and [could lead to] something that Woodland hasn’t done in a long time,” Montgomery said. “It would have been real easy — if he wasn’t as mentally tough as he is — to kind of put that pressure on himself. He hasn’t pitched that deep into a game before, hadn’t thrown that many pitches before and hadn’t really been in that situation before. It’s a testament to him and how he handled that mentally.”

Even though the Colonels still had six outs to work with, the missed opportunity in the fifth inning wound up being their best chance to score.

“That was tough,” Cass head coach Matt Thompson said. “We were in that spot to tie it up and put more pressure on them.”

In the sixth, Woodland worked around a one-out walk to Aidan Larkin, who stole second base before being stranded. Connor Stermer pitched a clean seventh inning. Third baseman Jakiyon Porter, who launched a solo home run in the top of the seventh, made a diving stop and strong throw to retire Hayden Cole to lead off the inning.

“He’s going to throw strikes,” Montgomery said of Stermer. “He’s got good off-speed pitches, and he’s going to keep it in the zone. Once Jakiyon hit that home run and we got one more insurance run, we knew Stermer was going to come in there, throw strikes and keep them off balance.”

Porter’s two-out blast gave Woodland its third one-run inning of the game. The Wildcats also produced single tallies in the second and fifth innings, with errors in the outfield helping the visitors both times.

Stermer singled home Ayden Ray, who reached on a dropped fly ball, in the second frame. Porter drove in Chase Carson with an RBI groundout in the fifth after Carson had singled and moved to second on a throwing error to lead off the frame.

“Of course, we would have liked a lot more [runs], any coach would have,” Montgomery said. “Both teams were tight. It was quiet here and there, especially at the beginning. Carson Hill did a good job of keeping us off balance, throwing a lot of off speed in the zone. We didn’t really hit a whole lot of them hard.

“We got the hit when we needed it. We executed when we needed to. We got a couple of breaks, which you have to have.”

As Montgomery mentioned, Hill, Cass’ starting pitcher, did everything he could to keep the Colonels within striking distance.

The junior tossed the opening six innings, allowing two runs (one earned) on eight hits and a walk. He struck out five.

“He did exactly what I thought he would do,” Thompson said of Hill. “He threw strikes, kept guys off balance and created weak contact. That’s exactly what we expected. He performed and did a great job.”

Unfortunately for Hill, offensive support has been extremely hard to come by for Cass this month. Since a 9-4, extra-innings loss to Calhoun in the opener of a region doubleheader April 1 at home, the Colonels have scored two total runs across eight games.

Then again, all Cass needs to reach the playoffs is a doubleheader sweep of Woodland in an April 21 twin bill. It sounds like a tall task, yet, the Colonels pulled off the feat in 2021 — albeit at home — en route to a postseason berth.

“Last year was the same boat,” said Thompson, who served as an assistant coach on that playoff team. “Really similar games [to begin the series], kind of a pitchers duel. Last year was 1-0, but both were under like two hours. Quick game, well-pitched game. We came back here and managed to get it done. First game [of the doubleheader] was still low-scoring, but we managed to walk off with a hit, and then we managed to take the third game.

“That same type of thing is there. We can do it. We just have to find a way to score some runs.”

Given the way last season’s series unfolded, Woodland certainly isn’t taking anything for granted.

“We told them, ‘You haven’t done anything yet,’” Montgomery said of his postgame message. “You’ve put yourself in a good position, but you can’t lose focus, put the cart before the horse or think you’ve done anything.

“We have to come out Thursday and loosen up. Hopefully, we put ourselves in a situation where we can relax a little bit. But we can’t relax too much, because this team will take advantage of that.”