SULPHUR — Before the Class 1A state championship Saturday afternoon, Merryville head coach David Ford told his team to embrace the underdog role.
It has worked in the previous three rounds of the playoffs and it worked again in the final as No. 11 Merryville (14-16) beat No. 9 Delta Charter (13-14) 6-3 to win its first state baseball championship.
The Panthers hadn’t even reached the quarterfinals before this season.
“I just told them that nobody expected us to be here,” Ford said. “Our record in the regular season wasn’t very spectacular, so we had nothing to lose.
‘If we were going to make it this far, we might as well win it.”
It was the first state title in any sport for the boys athletic program at Merryville and first for the school since a softball state championship in 2005.
“I can’t explain it,” Ford said. I am so proud of our guys. They bought in and did everything we asked them to do. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
While the Panthers had two seniors, their leadership carried them throughout the season. After Brett Bell pitched a complete-game shutout in the semifinals, fellow senior Gage Robberson pitched a complete game Saturday with eight strikeouts and two walks while allowing three runs on eight hits.
“He threw strikes and kept them off balance and he competed,” Ford said. “He has been our leader all year from start to finish.
“He makes sure the guys are there on time and that they get their work in. Today, he just came in and left everything on the field.”
Robberson also went 2-for-4 at the plate and drove in two runs to earn the MVP honor.
“It is pretty amazing,” Robberson said. “Nobody expected us, not where we were ranked, but we had confidence.
“It is pretty crazy. Next year, for sure, should bring a lot of media attention, especially as the returning champs. We are only losing two seniors, so we should be pretty solid next year as well.”
Robberson hit a two-run single to right field with two outs to put Merryville up 4-0 in the top of the third inning.
After the Storm cut the Panthers lead to 4-2 with two runs in the bottom of the inning, Robberson struck out five straight to cool off Delta Charter.
Merryville got a pair of insurance runs in the fifth inning when J.D. Reeves was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and Kole Royer’s RBI single to left field. Royer went 2-for-4.