WEATHERFORD — Thursday night at Weatherford Junior College turned into a career night for Hunter Hawthorne.
The senior pitcher for Bells struck out 17 over 6.2 innings as the Panthers defeated Valley Mills, 6-2, in Game 1 of a Class 2A Region II semifinal series.
“Hunter was great tonight,” Bells head coach Josh Weger said. “I'm really proud of him for stepping up and being tough.”
“I just was able to hit my spots tonight,” Hawthorne said. “I just kept it down in the zone where they couldn't hit it and it paid off.”
Bells (27-5) is one win away from advancing to the regional finals for the first time and Weger said that his team needed to be ready for a strong response by Valley Mills (23-8) in Game 2 at 5 p.m. on Saturday back at Weatherford Junior College. A third game would immediately follow if Valley Mills wins.
“I told our guys that they (Valley Mills) going to go all out and give everything they got,” Weger said. “They're going to fight and we have to do the same and match that and come to play our best ball on Saturday.”
The Panthers were able to strike first in the top of the first inning. After Stephen Hinds and Kason Huschke singled, Hawthorne reached on a hrowing error which brought home the lead runner.
“I was proud of the guys for how they got some runs early,” Weger said. “That's a really good pitcher we faced tonight and we'll see him again.”
From there, it was Hawthorne in control on the mound — striking out of the six of the next seven batters.
Bells added to its lead in the second inning of a two-run single from Trystan Mallory and chased Valley Mills starter Chase Keeton out of the game in the second inning.
The Panthers faced their toughest bit of adversity in the fourth inning. The Eagles had the first three batters reach via two singles and a walk and scored on a close play at the plate on a passed ball.
But as Hawthorne had done for most of the night, he was able to strike his way out of it as he retired the last two batters of the inning. He also got help from his defense as Cooper Buckemper was thrown out at home trying to score.
After getting out of trouble in the top of the inning, the Panther bats came to life, adding three more runs. Two runs came on RBI singles from Hinds and Chance Morse. The third came from a balk by Cooper Lane.
“That fourth inning was big for us,” Hawthorne said. “I got a lot of help from my teammates tonight. The game was still up in the air at that point and it was definitely something to be excited about.”
“They had us on the ropes even though we had the lead,” Weger said. “When the heat turns up, good players step up and that's what they did tonight.”
Valley Mills added a run in the sixth inning on a Buckemper RBI single but were contained by Hawthorne's fastball and curveball for much of the night. After reaching the 110-pitch count limit with two outs in the sixth inning, Matthew Conner came in to close out the game.