By REID TUCKER
Freeport’s baseball team broke a decade-long losing streak to district frontrunner Jay in grand fashion with a crushing 9-1 win.
Prior to claiming the 13-hit, nine-strikeout shutout victory on Thursday, March 24, the Bulldogs lost in 16 straight meetings with Jay since the 2001 season. Though the two schools were not district opponents from 2002 to 2004, it still effectively means eight whole classes’ worth of Freeport baseball teams had fallen to the Royals twice a year for the better part of a decade. That trend looked to continue this year as well, as the Royals once again beat the Bulldogs, this time 13-4, in their March 4 meeting.
Freeport head coach Shaun Arntz said his team was not willing to let the cycle continue any further. What the senior players didn’t realize was that they weren’t the only team to have struggled against Jay, and Arntz wasn’t going to tell them.
“Our stubborn seniors seemed to think they were only team that hadn’t beat Jay in four years but they didn’t know about the classes before them that didn’t do the same thing,” he said. “They were determined since we cranked the bus up to leave from Jay last time. They had the mindset that this had to be done. It was certainly a team effort but our seniors were really hungry for this tonight. The kids played their butts off. That’s what got it done.”
As expected, the seniors came out in force, with Michael Graziani striking out nine batters from the mound and walking just one. Cousins J.R. and Jake Fannin made big contributions from the plate, as both went 2-4 and both scored a run. Other Freeport standouts were Austin Woodard, who went 2-3, Brandon Head, who scored two runs for the Bulldogs on two hits, and Caleb McCormick, who got hits on three out of four appearances at the plate.
Jay’s numbers were less favorable. Hunter Brown had just one strikeout and walked one batter but gave up eight hits. The Royals looked better on offense, as the team accounted for seven hits but could not convert them into runs despite good looks throughout the game.
Two strikeouts breezed Freeport through Jay’s first at-bat but Graziani was left on third when the Bulldogs got their turn at the plate. The Royals didn’t waste time in the top of the second inning, as a Freeport error enabled them to easily score what turned out to their solitary run of the game on a hit from Connor Weeks. The Bulldogs quickly rallied back and found the measure of Brown, with Jake Fannin earning a double and two RBIs to put Freeport up 2-1 before the Royals turned a trick double play to halt a further advance.
The score held steady through the next two innings, as both sides retired the other’s batters almost in order but Freeport came out big in the bottom of the fourth and Woodard nailed an RBI double to load the bases. Collin Myrick got a double two bats later, bringing three more runners around. Freeport continued to score even after Jay switched in Payden Roberts at the mound, as Myrick and McCormick made their way home thanks to an error from the Royals right fielder.
Freeport kept the 8-1 lead until the bottom of the sixth inning, when Caleb Bowden finally made it home after struggling at the plate all evening. Jay looked to rally in the top of the seventh, putting runners on second and third with two outs. However, Graziani and the Bulldog infield made short work of the Royals batters, retiring the last three in order to end the game half an inning early.
While the win improved Freeport’s record to .500 all around (6-6, 3-3) it meant a lot more for Arntz and his players. The big win brought with it a realization that the Bulldogs have a shot at a decent midlevel district standing, something critical if the team wishes to avoid a repeat of last year’s upset to Ponce De Leon. While Jay’s club did not play its best game, Arntz is confident the Royals will be seeded first in the district, which means Freeport’s placement in the tournament will be more important than ever.
“We are all super pumped because this means we can come out and here and sure enough stroke it against a good pitcher,” Arntz said of Brown, who led Jay to the state Final Four last year. “I’ve known all along that we have a team that can accomplish anything they strive for. I think right now we have to strive for the third seed and have a shot at the six-seed and then if we win that we’ll get a shot at the number-two team. Jay did not play their best ballgame tonight. There’s no doubt in my mind that they will be the number-one seed.”