West Liberty takes a doubleheader from Urbana

WEST LIBERTY — With members of the conference champion teams from 1973-77 on hand at Kovalick Field including legendary coach Jim Watson, the pressure was on the West Liberty baseball team Saturday. The Hilltoppers weren’t phased in the least.

Coby Eckstein ripped a pair of homers — one solo and one a two-run shot — and finished with four RBI as the Hilltoppers (22-11 overall, 16-4 Mountain East Conference North) earned a 15-7 victory and a doubleheader sweep of Urbana (13-23, 7-13). Regionally ranked WLU took the weekend series, 3-1, and remained tied for the top spot in the North Division.

”To bounce back from losing the first (game of the series) is big,” West Liberty coach Eric Burkle said. “We’re fighting some injuries, but we’ll heal up and get ready for Shepherd next week.”

That series could well decide the division crown. The Hilltoppers and Rams sport identical conference marks.

West Liberty coughed up a 2-0 lead in the top of the seventh of Game 1. Brad Burkholder singled in one run and the second came home via a passed ball.

But the Hilltoppers rebounded as Justice Jackson reached on an error after a bunt attempt, scoring Chad Matthus for a 3-2 victory. That made a winner of reliever Parker Dyson, a hard-throwing Bridgeport graduate who came on in the second and struck out seven while walking one. He entered after staff ace Greg Stagani left with discomfort.

”He’s got some scar tissue from (a previous) surgery and it’s bothering him,” Burkle said. ”We didn’t want to take any chances when he said, ‘hey, I am not feeling it.’

”He’s going to go see a surgeon Monday to make sure it’s what he thinks it is. There’s no pain. They’re telling us it’s just the scar tissue and he needs to get it worked around.

”He may miss a start.”

In the nightcap, the big bats came to play. That was no doubt a welcome sight for the alumni on hand.

”There’s pressure because they want to play well and there’s pressure because you’ve got all this extra stuff to do,” Burkle said. ”We warned them beforehand that we were going to take some extra time between games and meet these guys and have a good time.

”It worked out for us.”

The Toppers jumped in front 1-0 in the second inning of Game 2, when Eckstein launched a 2-1 Vitor Takakura offering over the wall in left. Urbana responded immediately off WLU starter Yale Hughes as Damario Brown’s grounder to second produced the tying run. The Blue Knights went ahead 2-1 on a throwing error.

After the Hilltoppers tied it in the third when Alex Rojas crossed the plate on a fielder’s choice by Ethan Estes, Urbana put a three-spot on the board to go ahead, 5-4, before WLU, the leading hitting team in the MEC, officially woke up.

”We can hit the ball, but it’s a matter of the close games,” Burkle said. ”It’s coming full circle with these guys where they’re figuring out how to win games late. It’s been fun to watch.

”Another downfall of ours have been Game 2s. You’ve got that nine-inning game and we’ve had a tendency to go dead. That’s what it looked like was going to happen.”

Tyler Ramsay led off the top of the fourth by striking out, but reached on a passed ball. Bub Haddox singled through the right side and Rojas walked to load the bases before Hunter Westlake struck out swinging. Justice, a Wheeling Park product, cleared the sacks with a double to left to put West Liberty back in front, 6-5.

The Blue Knights had one last gasp in them, as they tied it in the the top of the fifth with an unearned run off relieved Nolan Marcus. West Liberty went in front for good as Rojas deposited a three-run homer in the bottom half for a 9-6 advantage.

Marcus, who earned a victory, blanked Urbana in the sixth and seventh to allow for some breathing room.

”It was huge,” Burkle said. ”He’s an infielder by trade and a former pitcher, but we still planned to use him in that role.

”But we didn’t have to. Now that we have to, he says, ‘I’m ready.’ ”

The Hilltoppers poured it on from there. Eckstein got the party started with a two-run shot to left-center field.

”We’ve been waiting on that,” Burkle said. ”He’s been smashing the ball and he’s been hitting top-spin line drives to left and left-center.

”We knew it was coming and he just let loose.”

WLU made it 15-6 in the bottom of the seventh. Matthus brought in two with a single to left, Matt Adams doubled in another and Eckstein contributed a sacrifice fly.

Hughes struck out five and didn’t walk a batter, but was saddled with a no-decision. Marcus fanned and walked two each in earning a victory and Mitchell Viakley shut it down in the ninth.