ALBIA — The last time Jared McCrea took the mound at Boyd Brittain Field, he didn't even make it to the end of the second inning.
One year and 23 days after walking five of 11 batters, allowing the first five Albia hitters to reach with four runners scoring in the first inning, McCrea walked three of 23 batters over the course of seven innings. Those were the only Albia hitters to reach base as McCrea clinched a share of the South Central Conference championship for Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont by tossing his second career no-hitter, completing a somewhat improbable late-season run to a second straight SCC title for the Rockets.
"Last year, I came out to this field and I didn't do very well," McCrea said. "This year, to come out here and throw a lot better, throwing a no-hitter, it feels a lot better than only being able to throw an inning and a half."
That 12-1 loss to Albia came in the COVID-delayed season opener for the Rockets. At the time, EBF head baseball coach Thomas Hallgren chalked up to McCrea being just slightly off target and unable in his first start of his junior season to get things back on track.
“Jared is such a good pitcher that I think, once he got frustrated he wasn’t sure what adjustments to make,” Hallgren said last June. “That’s a good lesson for him to learn. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll make those adjustments and be right the next time out.”
McCrea not only did that last season, helping EBF claim the outright SCC title, but proved on Thursday just how lethal he can be when the Rocket senior is dialed in on the mound. Three of Albia's first four hitters were retired on strikes as McCrea set down the first eight Blue Demons in order before walking Tein Thiravong.
That first base runner wouldn't stay on for long. McCrea unleashed his other key weapon on the mound, picking off Thiravong who couldn't even attempt to make a slide back into first before EBF first baseman Caleb Noble applied the tag for the final out of third inning.
"My control was down today. I was able to throw pretty much anything I wanted," McCrea said. "It's nice being able to do that."
Zach Leonard, McCrea's catcher, talked about the command from the outset on Thursday of the senior ace.
"It was more about mixing pitches. If you pitch backwards, it keeps hitters off-balance. He threw a lot of curveballs, probably more than he threw fastballs," Leonard said of McCrea. "It's a matter of mixing pitches and hitting locations. It's my job to call the pitch and where it's going to be at. It's Jared's job to hit that spot. I've played baseball with Jared long enough that I know pretty early on when he's going to pitch well."
Once three games back of Centerville in the loss column and less than two weeks removed from facing the first of what proved to be seven consecutive must-win games in the conference race, EBF turned the final game of the 2021 SCC baseball season into a one-sided affair. Caleb Noble collected his first of two run-scoring doubles in the first two innings, driving in Thane Alexander with the first of EBF's nine runs against the Blue Demons.
Ironically, with McCrea on the mound this season at Albia, it was the Rocket batters that took advantage of walks to create scoring opportunities in Thursday's conference clincher. Three straight EBF batters reached without swinging the bat to open the second inning, setting up Devin Jager for an RBI single and Noble for a two-run double that put EBF up 5-0 after two innings.
"To win the conference title this way is satisfying in a way that is different from leading the race from start to finish," Hallgren said. "To know that you have to win tonight, you have to win tomorrow, you have to take care of business and you have to be consistent brings a different level of satisfaction than anything I've experienced in coaching."
EBF finished off the day with another road shutout, getting back on the bus after enjoying some pizza at Brittain Field and venturing up to Urbandale to post a 10-0 win over Des Moines Christian. The Rockets (24-6, 14-4 SCC) bounced back in a big way on Thursday after having an overall seven-game winning streak snapped with a 7-5 loss at Pella Christian as the Eagles (9-21) scored four runs in the sixth to rally past EBF on Tuesday
"We started a lot of reserves so some guys could get some rest and the young guys could get some experience," Hallgren said. "I'm proud of their effort. We pitched two sophomores that got some great experience and competed their tales off.
"It's always tough to lose, but when you compete with best effort and energy, you can learn from loss. They and we can grow from this."
Albia, meanwhile, also had a Thursday night game to play on the road at Pleasantville. The Trojans won a wild 11-9 non-conference decision over the Blue Demons, sending Albia into postseason play with an overall record of 12-15 including a final SCC record of 6-11.
The Blue Demons head to Pella on Saturday to open Class 2A district tournament play against Central Decatur at 5 p.m. EBF, meanwhile, opens the postseason at home against either Cardinal or Pekin on Tuesday night beginning at 7 p.m.