SULPHUR —Heroes weren’t at a premium in positioning Catholic High for an opportunity to win its third Class 5A state baseball championship in six years.
They ranged from the complete-game effort of pitcher Ross Massey to the clutch hitting performances of pinch-hitter Brandon Fairbanks and ninth-place hitter Bo Branch.
The collective efforts resulted in second-seeded Catholic High registering a dramatic Class 5A state semifinal victory, with Branch driving in Fairbanks in the bottom of the seventh inning for a 1-0 win Friday over No. 14 seed Brother Martin at the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA State Baseball tournament at McMurry Park.
Catholic (37-5) advances to face the Barbe-Sulphur winner in the Class 5A state championship game at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Junior Brian Fairbanks will be the Catholic’s starting pitcher in the state final.
“This team’s so close,” Catholic coach Brad Bass said. “There’s so many guys that can come in and do great jobs for us. From the lead-off man throughout the entire roster, guys who come off the bench and guys who hit throughout the lineup. What a fun ballgame.”
Massey was locked in a pitcher’s duel with Brother Martin’s Corey Gaconi with both aces holding the other team scoreless through six innings.
“It was a battle from the first inning until the last, and we just came out on top,” said Massey, who allowed three singles, walked one and struck out eight. “I just wanted to give my team a chance to win. I’m glad we got the win.”
Massey (11-0) gave Catholic a lift going into the bottom of the seventh, picking Luke Bernard off of first base with Matt Crapanzano running him down and throwing to shortstop Josh Smith for the final out.
With Gaconi, a Southeastern Louisiana signee, having limited Catholic to four hits through six innings, Bass opted to have Brandon Fairbanks bat in place of Crapanzano to lead off the seventh.
Gaconi (2-3) was ahead in the count 0-2, but Fairbanks squeezed a double down the left-field line — the Bears second extra-base hit to go along with Branch’s double in the fifth.
“I was just sitting there watching the game and coach Bass came up and told me I was due,” Fairbanks said. “I was down in the count real quick. I didn’t get nervous. I trusted my ability and he got too much of the plate and I got all of it.”
“Coming off the bench Brandon deserves all the credit in the world,” Massey said.
Branch was in an obvious bunt situation and initially tried to sacrifice Fairbanks to third but missed on his first attempt.
With Brother Martin’s corner infielders closing for bunt coverage or “crashing” Bass took the bunt sign off and signaled to Branch to “slash” in which he drove an 0-1 pitch past a vacated third base into left field.
With Fairbanks getting a good jump and the ball slow to reach left fielder Kyler Johnston, Fairbanks scored easily and sent Catholic’s jubilant dugout spilling out onto the field to celebrate the team’s second 1-0 victory this season.
“After I missed the first bunt, coach Bass gave me the slash motion,” said Branch, who along with Simon Prevot led the Bears with two hits apiece. “When I showed bunt the second time, they crashed and I slashed. I was comfortable at the plate and trusted my teammates.”
Brother Martin, making its first semifinal appearance in 12 years, had a runner at third in the fourth on Massey’s three-base throwing error, but the Tulane signee got a fly ball to end the inning.
Brother Martin loaded the bases in sixth on two of their three hits and a hit batter, but Massey struck out Jonathan Parker swinging and got Chase Dolly to fly out deep to right where Fairbanks tracked it down before the warning track.
“You blinked, and it was the seventh inning,” Branch said of the game’s rapid pace. “Ross pitched an incredible game and kept us in the game. Without him there’s no situation at the end. It’s just lot of fun. We’re a family. I love being with these guys in everything we do.”