CHARLESTON - The thought most high school baseball coaches wrestle with in the state semifinals is which pitcher to throw, the ace or the No. 2?
Magnolia's Dave Cisar chose No. 2, in this case Zach Willhoite on Friday against Notre Dame at Appalachian Power Park, and for a long time it looked like it might have been the wrong call.
When the Blue Eagles (31-4) rallied with two runs in the seventh to beat the Fighting Irish, 4-3, and advance to today's Class A title game against Charleston Catholic, Cisar had a big smile on his face and started talking about, well wrestling.
"I watch WWE at 8 o'clock and 11 o'clock every Monday night," he said. "There's a guy on there called 'The Miz.' The Miz has one word to say - ''awesome.'' I feel rather awesome right now the way we came back here and won this game."
It wasn't hard to fault Cisar, who has a history of trying to save his ace in Charleston, for starting Willhoite, who had pitched his best the last three weeks and was 6-0 with a 3.20 ERA on the season. But the knees began to shake a bit when trailing 2-1 in the third, Willhoite hit Spencer Harlow with a pitch in front of an RBI double by freshman Josh Baker, his second run-producing double of the game.
It was then that Cisar summoned Kyle Elliott, the club's ace, who went on to pitch 4 2/3 scoreless - and hitless - innings the rest of the way, keeping the top-ranked Blue Eagles close.
"Not to take anything away from Zach; he's pitched very, very well," Cisar said. "He didn't throw real well (Friday). But I'm going to tell you something. Maybe it wasn't that he didn't throw well. We played a pretty good baseball game here."
Four Notre Dame pitchers held Magnolia to three hits game-long and struck out a trio of batters. It was the last two of 11 walks and one of the two hit batsmen that ultimately did them in.
The Blue Eagles, who had two players picked off bases and another caught stealing through the first three innings, scored only one run during that time on an error. They got it to 3-2 on an RBI infield single by Drew Keller in the fourth while Elliott was cruising.
"Elliott came in, settled us down, pitched a great game," Cisar said. "It seemed like all at once our defense got more alive, we picked it up a little bit emotionally, but still, we didn't get a clutch hit all day."
In the seventh, two walks and a hit batsman loaded the bases ahead of that seemingly long lost big hit - a ringing, two-run single by Tanner Hanna that proved to be the difference.
"You can't give the No. 1 team in the state (that many) baserunners," Notre Dame coach Patrick Marozzi said. "We were fortunate enough that those baserunners really didn't hurt us. They did but they didn't. We should have won the game, honestly. We couldn't throw strikes in the seventh."
It's true. Magnolia did little with those freebies through the first six innings.
"No. 1, we got picked off second base," Cisar said. "One of the 10 commandments of baseball is don't get picked off when you're not running. But sometimes you make a mistake. We learned a great deal from getting picked off second base.
"Then boom, Elliott, he's 21 out of 22 steals, he leaves a little too early, gets thrown out at second base. Everything we do is wrong. I'm kinda sitting there thinking, 'Hey maybe I should go sit in the corner of the dugout and let these guys go at it.' "
He didn't, of course, at one point pulling a classic Cisar move and pulling a batter with one strike in favor of another in hopes of getting a bunt down (which worked).
By the seventh, things turned around for Magnolia.
During one stretch, Irish pitchers had thrown 14 straight balls in the pivotal inning.
"We didn't win the hit game - we had three hits," Cisar said. "But the key is when you get that big hit. Tanner Hanna made a great swing right there on a 3-2 pitch, and boom.
"Sometimes games are won, and sometimes games are lost. We got three gifts in the last inning."
The Eagles could have had more, but back-to-back fielder's choices, one on a squeeze bunt, erased runners at the plate before Chris Petrucci was able to get the final out.
Elliott worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the inning, getting a trio of groundouts, to set off a celebration.
Interestingly, the last time Magnolia was in this spot (two years earlier), Cisar did the same thing by starting his then-No. 2 pitcher Elliott, a sophomore, and got into a 5-0 hole before calling on ace Justin Fox. In that case, it didn't work as the Blue Eagles fell 6-4 to Wyoming East.
In 2006, the only time Cisar has won a title in 40 years in baseball and more than 20 in football, he went the other way. Veteran Michael Blair won the opener and freshman Andrew Robinson beat Liberty Harrison, 10-1, in the title game.
Notre Dame had five hits Friday, none after the third. Marozzi knew that wouldn't be enough.
"No," he said. "They're the No. 1 team in the state for a reason. We tried to manufacture a couple more runs. We weren't able to do it. We were able to bunt guys when we wanted to when we had guys on base. We just couldn't drive them in."