SULPHUR — Down to the final three outs of its season, Catholic High started to find the grit that earned the Bears this year’s top seed in Division I.

Rummel starter Jackson Dennies had worked a one-hitter into the seventh inning at McMurry Park and was alive to finish Sunday’s LHSAA state semifinal because of his pinpoint execution early on that kept his pitch count to a minimum.

But a four-run cushion quickly evaporated to 4-3, with runners on the corners and a full count against the Bears’ No. 3-hole hitter Mason Zambo.

Dennies had eclipsed the 115-pitch count limit as the Catholic sophomore grinded with each foul tip — this would be the final batter of his, and possibly his team’s, season.

But as they have the last month, the fourth-seeded Raiders (22-12) and Dennies found a way. This time, it was a pinpoint breaking ball that with contact sputtered to first for an easy out that clinched Rummel’s 4-3 upset victory over top-seeded Catholic (26-11) to reach the team’s first state title game since 2012.

“We obviously considered (pulling Dennies) because they hadn’t squared him up all game, and in the seventh we thought maybe this time around they were starting to figure him out,” Rummel coach Nick Monica said. “But Jackson earned (the right) to be in that spot the way he pitched through the season.

“And today, he earned the opportunity to get us out of that.”

Entering Sunday’s contest, Monica knew his team’s chances would hinge just as much on run support as it would working the Bears starter and UL-Monroe signee Nicholas Judice into a handful of long counts — even if the runs didn’t come right away.

He got both.

The senior faced six batters in the top of the first alone, giving up an RBI-single to Kade Rivera on the game’s second at-bat before throwing 32 pitches in the first inning alone. The game was the Bears’ fifth consecutive appearance in the state semifinals.

“You’ve got to set the tone well early in a game against a good opponent,” Catholic coach Brad Bass said. “Give the credit to them. They did a great job. But we’ll be back to play another day.”

With two outs and runners on first and second in the top of the second inning, Rivera came around again and knocked in both Logan Bertucci and Lance Johnson on a two-run double for an early 3-0 lead. By three innings, Judice had tossed 72 pitches, and he reached 94 after four — forcing Bass to bring in reliever Brock Perry for the final three.

“I thought we had a good plan against (Judice), told them to lay off the stuff out of the zone and get him to throw in the zone,” Monica said. “Even when we didn’t score, we were able to get guys on base early and make him work.”

Dennies continued to roll into the sixth and didn’t appear to waver after giving up a leadoff single to Matthew Lee. But the pressure began to build in the seventh, as Catholic’s Alex Crifasi and Kason Cullins began a charge with back-to-back singles. The Bears then juiced the bases with a two-out walk and scored three runs on two more hits from Addison Ainsworth and Zach Ordeneaux.

In do-or-die mode for both teams, Dennies quickly remembered the despair of falling short in 2017’s semis and helped him find the right pitch for the moment.

“I wasn’t going to walk him,” he said. “It was like a battle of pitcher and hitter right there, and I won that time.”


Follow Nathan Brown on Twitter, @nbrownadvocate.