ANNA — This was first place versus last place, seven district wins versus one — but since it was also Melissa’s Cardinals versus Anna’s Coyotes, none of that mattered. In this last of two 2017 meetings between the teams, Friday, April 21, at the Anna Sports Complex, this game of course came down to a bases-loaded, 3-2 pitch with two outs. When it was over, after leading 5-0, the surging Cards had prevailed, 7-5, to maintain their perch atop District 11-4A with one left to play.

Asked if he expected a fight this time from the Coyotes, Cards head coach Jason Russell said, “Every time. (Anna head coach Joey Hector) does a phenomenal job. Those guys just compete and grind. They’re never out of the game. That’s them — that’s everyone in this district. It’s a battle each and every week. You just tip your hat to them. … They did a good job pitching, they played good defense. It was a really well-played game.”

“Again, they performed about like I thought they would,” Hector said of his Coyotes. “I know coming into every game they’re going to battle hard, they’re going to compete. They’ve kind of flushed the season a little bit. They know we’ve got nothing to really gain from it, but they’re playing for pride. It’s obvious they’ve got a lot of pride in themselves.”

Down 7-5, with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Anna had the winning run at the plate in Jacob Williams, with Colton Brown at third and Zach Howard at second. Williams walked to load the bases and Jeran Lewis stepped in needing a single to tie — a double or more to win it. The count went to 3-2 and a showdown pitch from Melissa’s hard-throwing reliever Tate Whittington loomed. With everybody running, Whittington brought one more fastball to the plate and Lewis took a big cut but missed. Game over. It was Whittington’s third strikeout of the frame.

“That’s the guy you want in those situations,” Russell said of Whittington. “He doesn’t back down from anything. He’s the ultra-competitor.”

Said Hector, “Coming into the last inning, I told the kids, ‘We hold them here and score three.’ I really expected to score three right there. To be honest, I was shocked we didn’t because that’s the way these kids are. They compete hard.”

“They give us their best stuff every time we come and play them,” Whittington said of Anna. “We knew they weren’t going to roll over. They were going to come out because they still have some life in them. I was expecting it.”

Melissa (8-1) stormed to a 5-0 lead after three at-bats and appeared to be in control. The Coyotes, though, rallied for three runs in their half of the third and it was game-on. When the Cards pushed a run across in the fifth to lead, 6-3, Anna came back with two in the bottom of the frame.

“They’d get a big inning, then we’d go scratch and score a run,” Russell said. “It seemed like every time they scored, we tried to scratch a little bit to give us a lead. I thought we showed some grit tonight in that aspect.”

Grayson Hurst tallied three hits to lead Melissa, including a double in the Cards’ three-run third. Morrison, Whittington, Adam Davis and Andrew Cole collected two hits each for Melissa, with Morrison slapping a triple in the first and Whittington a double in the third.

Melissa starting pitcher Brady Morrison struck out nine in five innings of work, while scattering five hits and four walks. “(Morrison’s) curve ball was really good again,” Russell said. “Then, he changes his grip on his fastball — 2-seam, 4-seam — so the ball is moving so many different ways it makes it really tough on those guys. … The things he does well, he did well again tonight.”

Koy Harris started for Anna (1-8) and worked 4.2 innings, allowing nine hits while striking out five before Howard came on to close it out. Brown had two of the Coyotes’ six hits, with Harris and Williams posting singles each. Howard’s two doubles – one in the fifth and one in the seventh — nearly brought the Coyotes back. His two-bagger to center in the fifth drew Anna to within a run, at 6-5.

“I was looking to hit the ball on top of the school out there, I’m not going to lie,” Howard said. “He gave me a pitch I could handle and I hit it pretty hard. (Morrison’s) a good pitcher, though.”

The Coyotes’ home crowd bid farewell to two seniors this evening: Lawrence Goade and Harris. Goade accented his Senior Night with a diving catch in center field to end the top of the fifth.

“It’s a bitter-sweet deal,” Hector said of the occasion. “You’re so proud of them for sticking it out for four years and battling like they did. You’re glad they’re leaving because they’re moving on to another chapter but at the same time it’s going to hurt losing those two guys.”

Whittington was asked about the Cards’ attitude, their mental approach with one game left in the regular season.

“We’re going to take care of business,” he said. “That’s our mindset — to get it done. First-seed is looking good in the playoffs for us. We control our destiny.”