CARTHAGE -- After dropping the first two games of the season, the Monett Cubs baseball team has churned out three victories in a row, and for the first time, advanced to the championship game in the 36th annual Bill O'Dell Tournament in Carthage.
The early season tournament is an eight-team bracket featuring Class 3 schools from the Big 8 Conference, including state-ranked Carl Junction.
The opening night opponent for the Cubs on Monday was host school Carthage, which Monett dominated in five innings, 12-2.
In the semifinals Tuesday night, the Lamar Tigers tested Monett before falling, 6-3.
The Cubs took control of the game in the third inning, scoring the first two runs with a passed ball that brought in junior Jesse Bremer and senior Spenser Witt.
Bremer did much more than cross home plate for the Cubs. In a workmanlike effort, the southpaw pitcher also defended it by throwing a complete game. The seven hits he gave up came in clusters, enabling the Tigers to get traction in two innings with leadoff hits. In the fourth, Tiger Markell White scooted to third on Cub shortstop Colten Phillips' double play and later scored on a Cub miscue at home.
The real test came after Lamar started to connect in the sixth, including a shot to deep centerfield by Steven Hohulin, which put the Tigers ahead for the first time at 3-2.
Then the fortress that is the Cubs' infield slammed the door shut for the night with a rundown for one out. The Tigers' brief scoring party was arrested with two strikeouts and Bremer owned the game on defense.
"I trust my defense (teammates)," said Bremer.
Arm encased in ice after the win, he revealed the benefit of experience pitching since he was 9.
"I knew I had to change what I was doing," said Bremer, reflecting on Lamar's hitting inroads in the late innings. "So I went off-speed."
Monett directly answered Lamar's surge in the bottom of the sixth for what may have been an offensive breakthrough inning for the season. Leadoff junior Andy Hagedorn drove a grounder to center for a hit. Then Junior Marcus McCaffrey's pop-up to left field resulted in a Tiger fielders' collision and the rally was on.
The model bunt by Junior Colten Phillips was the best this year, loading the bases. Bremer again figured in the scoring when his hit to Lamar pitcher David Ellingwood resulted in a botched throw home, scoring Hagedorn to tie the game at 3-3. Junior Doug Aldridge put Lamar in peril with a shallow hit to right field, scoring two more for the go-ahead runs.
As usual, senior Spenser Witt figured in a Cubs' score. After going in the hole to Lamar reliever Trenton Doyle with an 0-2 count, he smacked the ball for hit. The Tigers then attempted to pickoff Witt, allowing Aldridge to score, making it 6-3.
Monett's team effort was completed late in the game, when freshman second baseman Nicky Roberts made a spectacular snare of a line shot, much to the surprise of the Tiger base runner. In a flash, Roberts got the ball out of his mitt for a hasty throw to first. First baseman Marcus McCaffrey made a difficult catch of his own - in the sleeve of his jersey - for the double play.
In one fell swoop, Roberts, 15, arrived as the new sentinel in the team fortress.
"My feet were crisscrossed," said Roberts of his vertical catch. "Getting my glove up was just a reaction. Then I heard 'em yelling, 'one-one-one!' so I threw it to first base."
Like Witt, McCaffrey's contribution stream goes far beyond the obvious.
He also dominated a Tiger of another stripe, the host in the tournament's first game on Monday. In the complete game blowout of the Carthage Tigers (12-2 in five innings), he permitted just three hits.
His performance in the third inning proved to be "the bomb" for Cub hurlers to date. After Carthage loaded the bases, McCaffrey escaped two full pitch counts without allowing a run.
"It was nerve-wracking," said McCaffrey, "but I just took a deep breath and relaxed."
It also helped to have sure-footed fielding from center fielder Witt, shortstop Phillips and third baseman Marcus Enloe, who knocked down the hottest line shot of the game, fished the ball off the ground and fired to first for the out.
The bat of the night was catcher Jake Smith's 415-foot drive to center, scoring two runs to make it 7-2 in the fourth.
"It was inside and low," he said. "I knew their centerfielder wasn't going to get to it."
Coach Calhoun is obviously pleased with his young team's mature strides into a varsity force.
"Beating Lamar was a gutsy win," he said. "Either you're going to make plays or they are going to make plays. We capitalized.
"Another difference is our approach to the plate," Coach Calhoun added. "Early on this season, we were overly aggressive. Now we pick our spots."
The tournament's title game is Thursday night at the Carl Lewton Stadium in Carthage (Interstate 44 to Highway 71's exit at Central. Look for the stadium lights on the left). Game time is 7 p.m.