ALBIA — For seven innings, Ethan Gray did everything he could on the mound to give Albia a district title against their closest South Central Conference rival Saturday night.
In the end, however, it would be Gray's bat that would give the Blue Demons the win against the Rockets as the SCC provided Class 2A with another extra-inning all-time great district championship battle.
For the second straight year, EBF saw their season end in gut-wrenching walk-off fashion in the district finals to a conference opponent. After losing a 5-4 thriller in nine innings to defending state champ Davis County on their home diamond last year, the Rockets saw a similiar fate occur as Gray shook off a tough-luck no decision despite allowing one hit over seven shutout innings to deliver a game-winning walk-off double in the bottom of the eighth as Hugh Sinclair scored the only run of a 1-0 classic won by the Blue Demons Saturday at Albia's Summer Sports Complex.
"I know I did everything I could out there. Wins and losses personally don't matter. It's whether or not the team gets the win or the loss," Gray said. "I think my record is 4-2 overall this season, so it's not like I've won a lot anyway this year. I did everything I could to give ourselves a chance to win."
Unfortunately for Gray, he ran up against a similiarly great pitching effort by Rocket senior Levi Johnston. On the way to a three-hit shutout thrown over six innings, Johnston retired 13 straight Albia hitters at one point and also had to settle for a tough no-decision.
"You got to give it up to both Ethan and Levi. They both pitched a heck of a game," Albia head coach Boyd Brittan said. "It's a shame either team had to lose that game."
Johnston gave way to senior staff ace Christian Bambrook, who kept Albia from scoring the walk-off run in the seventh after getting the first two men on. Sinclair started the eighth inning with a single and after poping up a bunt attempt into the EBF dugout, Gray swung away and ripped a double that got down the line and past EBF right fielder Cole Maines to allow Sinclair to come all the way around first with the winning run.
"I just got the signal to swing away, so I let my hands go," Gray said. "I figured whatever happened, it was going to be tough facing Bambrook. I just tried to go up there with as much confidence as possible and hope for the best."
Sinclair slid across home plate in front of Bambrook, who slapped his glove in bitter disappoinment. The senior saw his career at EBF end with a fourth consecutive loss in the district final, including a second upset loss to Albia.
"You hate to see a career like Christian's end like that, but then again you hate to see anyone's season end in a game like this," EBF head coach Rod Ashman said. "I really thought this was going to be our year to win and move on, possibly all the way to state. I know we'll get there one day. It just wasn't to be this year."
Instead, it will be 23-16 Albia that will advance to Tuesday night's Class 2A, Substate 6 Final in Fairfield as the District 12 champs after ending EBF's season at 27-14. The Blue Demons will make their fourth trip to the substate round of the postseason looking to make it to state for the second time under Brittan when they face 26-16 Mediapolis, a 6-2 winner over 12-26 Mid-Prairie on Saturday in the District 11 final.
"I have absoultely no idea what to expect from Mediapolis right now," Brittan said immediately after winning yet another postseason thriller Saturday in Albia. "But, I'll know plenty by Tuesday."