2016 NHSI: True Grit From The First Academy

CARY, N.C.—The Mater Dei High Monarchs entered the National High School Invitational with a swagger, and who could blame them? They had won the NHSI trophy in 2012 and 2013 and had not lost in eight games of the tournament at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.

They fell behind in their first game Wednesday, but in true champion fashion, rallied behind the Herculean effort of Southern California commit Josh Stephen, who went 4-for-4 with two doubles and five RBIs, including the go-ahead, three-run homer in the sixth inning.

The only problem in this narrative was Mater Dei was facing The First Academy—no slouch itself as the alma mater of Royals first-round pick Foster Griffin and current Virginia star Adam Haseley, and the 2014 NHSI champs.

The First Academy (Orlando, Fla.) had its own plans and those plans didn’t involve being on the sour end of another Mater Dei win.

TFA rallied in the bottom of the sixth, sparked by 2014 NHSI standout Cody Oerther who scored the go-ahead run, to secure a thrilling 6-5 win over Mater Dei, pinning the first NHSI loss on the Santa Ana, Calif. school.

“No sir, I had no idea,” Oerther answered when asked whether he knew Mater Dei was undefeated at the NHSI. “It’s kind of a good thing I didn’t, I guess. We knew they won (the tournament) twice.”

TFA coach Scott Grove got five solid innings from starter Garrett Milchin, a 2016 Gators commit, but Milchin walked five and had thrown 91 pitches. Grove didn’t want to push Milchin to a sixth inning, knowing he’d be taken out at 100 pitches.

So he brought in Jason Helgeson, who like Oerther was at NHSI in 2014, but Helgeson did not get the job done, walking four and allowing Stephen’s long blast to right that put Mater Dei ahead.

Still, Grove remained confident.

“We almost blew it,” Grove said. “The kids really came back hard. We just needed to get one more out (in the sixth), just do some damage control. We’re pretty confident on the way we swing the bat. If we could just keep it close, we’ve got a shot at the end.”

In the defeat, Mater Dei coach Burt Call praised his team and his opponent.

“They made some good hits and put the ball in play and we just missed our spots,” Call said. “You’ve got to give credit to The First Academy for competing and staying in the game.”

As for Stephen, the loss only slightly dampened what was the best offensive performance at the five-year-old event.

“I came here today to do what I do,” he said. “I focus on hitting the ball hard every time.”

On his home run off low-slot lefty Helgeson, Stephen said, “I struggle with lefties usually, especially from a submarine angle. I was in the on-deck circle trying to figure it out. I just caught (the pitch) out front.

“At first I thought it was just a routine fly ball, but it kept going and going and I saw it go over the fence. I’ll never forget that feeling … to be down in the ball game and put my team up, especially in this tournament … it’s a feeling I won’t ever forget.”

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