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Jays can’t keep pace, fall to Willard in district championship

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Briefly, Marshfield seemed poised to make a comeback in Saturday’s Class 5 District 5 Championship against Willard.

Trailing 4-1 entering the fourth inning, a walk left the bases loaded with two outs for Marshfield when a single to center by Jackson Rovig scored a pair of runners, pulling the Jays within a run.

In the bottom of the frame, Marshfield starter Ethan Grace, who to that point had labored, appeared to finally settle in. But with two outs, Willard pieced together back-to-back singles, then outfielder Ben Casterlin kept a hit by Kade Biellier in front of him, but couldn’t come up with a clean out on the diving attempt, scoring two for the Tigers.

Next up, Klayton Kiser drove a pitch from Grace for a line drive that landed deep down the right field line and plated two more across for the Tigers.

So close for a game that got so far away from there on.

“Two strikeouts, too, to start the inning [for Ethan], and then, aww, they’re back up four runs again,” Jays head coach Will Pate said. “It kind of takes the air out of it.”

“He didn’t seem like himself tonight, really,” Pate said of Grace, who allowed just two hits over five scoreless innings and struck out nine in the district quarterfinal win over Bolivar. “The timing of his fastball was up, or he was down. The curveball, he wasn’t in command of that, but that’s part of the game; you’ve got to make adjustments.”

Willard piled on with another handful of runs in the fifth, the first of them scoring on an errant play at first. A single later in the inning by Kiser off Jackson Rovig, on in relief, cleared the bases.

“You know, it stinks,” Pate said. “I still coached them [afterward] on what we did wrong. I’m just not the type of person to say, ‘Hey guys, good season.’ We have younger guys that have to learn and you’ve got to fix things. I told the seniors I love them...it’s tough.”

Poor weather and field conditions forced a myriad of changes to the district, initially set to take place in Rolla.

The Jays won both the quarterfinal and semifinal games at Hillcrest High School in Springfield. Hayden Curley homered, adding to Grace's quality start in the 5-1 victory over the Liberators on May 18.

A day later, the Jays' Jackson pair –– Vestal and Rovig –– combined for 15 strikeouts in a 5-2 win over Camdenton. Rovig tripled and drove in two while Grace also knocked in two runs to beat the Lakers.

Plans called for the title game to played Friday night at Hillcrest, but rain Thursday and into game day proved too much and led to a move to the classy confines of U.S. Ballpark in Ozark.

By beating Marshfield, the Tigers (24-10), who also made the Final Four in 2019, picked up their fourth district title in five seasons. They'll face Glendale in the quarterfinals on Saturday.

Marshfield finished the season with a 16-9 record.

“I think [these seniors] changed the program culture,” Pate said. “Our kids learn from them. They’re great role models, and that right there changes your program for the future.”

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