Columbia senior pitcher Shane Wilhelm brought his best stuff to the Class 3A Centralia Sectional championship game, but Triad starter Mack Langdon made all the clutch pitches.
Langdon stranded six Columbia base runners while striking out seven through four high-wire innings. That gave his teammates just enough room to scrap their way to a 2-1 extra-inning win and their first sectional championship since 2012.
"It was tough is what it was," Triad coach Jesse Bugger said of his starter's performance. "He has had better outings where he's cruised for sure, but to make as many crucial pitches as he did in key situations without breaking was just huge."
Triad (28-11) will face Chatham Glenwood in the 3A super-sectional at GCS Ballpark in Sauget at 4 p.m. Monday. Glenwood (31-6-1) was a 6-0 winner over Rochester in the Decatur sectional Saturday.
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Wilhelm, who will be pitching this time next year for the Missouri Tigers, arrived in Centralia "as outstanding as advertised," Bugger said. He allowed Triad just two base runners through the first five innings.
But the Eagles' inability to capitalize on key offensive opportunities eventually caught up to Wilhelm.
Columbia put at least one runner in scoring position with fewer than two outs in each of the first five innings. In three of those innings, however, Langdon held the Eagles at bay by striking out the last two batters of the frame.
"Shane did a great job for us out there and was really cruising," said Columbia third-year head coach Neal O'Donnell. "Earlier in the game, though, if we would have done a better job with situational hitting we'd have had a few more runs on the board and put a little more pressure on them. It came back to haunt us."
Triad leadoff hitter Josh Messenbrink tied the game in the sixth when he slammed a solo home run deep over the wall in center field to tie the game at 1-1.
"He was mixing it up great, starting us off and pitching us backwards," Messenbrink said of Wilhelm's performance. "In that last at-bat, I said we need to give (Langdon) a run, he's fighting for us. I got a fastball I was able to work with and put a good swing on the ball."
That single swing turned the game, said Bugger, who didn't know if the Knights could have strung together enough hits to win the game without a long ball.
"It's easy to get down with a kid like that who has buried you most of the day," Bugger said. "We did a good job really grinding at the end because I think our at-bats got better after Messenbrink's home run. Our guys began to feel like they had a shot because, for a little while, it felt like a lost cause."
Then Hunter Smith, who had reached on the game's only error by either side, scored the game-winner on a 59-foot Wilhelm fastball that skipped past the Columbia catcher to the backstop at Centralia's Sprehe Field.
It was a brutal end for Wilhelm, who went the distance on a hot and muggy day in Centralia, and for the Eagles, whose 30 wins were second in school history to only the 2007 state champions.
"It's one of the best groups we've had in school history," O'Donnell said. "To win 28 in a row, that's what the kids will remember as part of this season."
Senior outfielder Brennen van Breusegen put the Eagles on top in the fifth when he led off with a single and later scored on a sacrifice fly by Dylan Hildebrand. It looked like it would be enough, not just because Wilhelm appeared to be cruising, but because the game became official just as darkened skies to the west signaled an approaching downpour.
But Triad senior Zach Kraabel trotted in from center field in relief of Langdon and retired Columbia's last 12 batters in a row.
"Zach came into the game and (held Columbia) to just the one run," Bugger said. "That was huge."