STORY BY CHIP CIRILLO | PHOTOS BY CARL EDMONDSON, JR.
Back in the first game of the year, Independence coach Mike McLaury took Robert Hassell out of a 16-strikeout no-hitter to protect his arm because his pitch count was getting high.
The Vanderbilt commit did even better Wednesday night, but this time McLaury let him finish.
The 6-foot-2 lefthander fired a 17-strikeout no-hitter, leading the Eagles to their first District 11-AAA title since 2011 with a 3-0 masterpiece over Brentwood at Summit.
“He was unbelievable,” McLaury said. “Today he struck out 17 on 100 pitches. That’s pretty darn good.”
Independence (20-11) hosts Hillwood (20-11) in a Region 6-AAA semifinal Monday.
Brentwood (19-17), the defending state runner-up, had just two baserunners: two on walks and one on an infield error.
Hassell finished strong, stinking out eight of the last nine batters.
“My fastball felt good,” Hassell said. “I was throwing it for strikes, I was throwing it harder throughout the game and I relied on that as my main pitch.”
Hassell has been clocked at 93 mph with his fastball, but he typically stays in the low 90s and upper 80s. The junior mixed in a curveball, an off-speed pitch and a slider.
He was named tournament MVP after winning the same award during the regular season.
Hassell’s mom, Jane, teared up outside the dugout as the Eagles celebrated their championship
“She’s pretty emotional,” Hassell said. “She just loves baseball and she’s proud of me.”
Hassell was called for an illegal pitch early in the game, but it didn’t fluster him.
“It’s a hybrid pitching style,” McLaury said. “(The umpires) were right. He did a good job adjusting.”
Hassell kept quiet in the dugout in between innings.
“I kind of keep to myself when I’m pitching, just try to stay focused on the mound, just try to stay locked in because sometimes later in the game I start to lose a little bit of focus” Hassell said.
Eagles catcher Nick Wegman said all of Hassell’s stuff was working.
“We really emphasized getting ahead on the first pitch,” Wegman said. “Make sure we get first-pitch strikes. The slider and curveball were working and then we mixed in the changeup there at the end.”
Wegman got a sore finger on his glove hand on one of Hassell’s heaters.
“I think it was in the third or fourth inning he struck someone out and my finger was banging,” Wegman said. “It was rough.”
Hassell scored the only run Independence would need in the first inning after opening the game with a double down the right-field line. Cleanup hitter William Brunette drove him in with a two-out single.
Williams Tobin’s two-run single with two outs increased the Eagles’ lead to 3-0 in the second.
Bruins coach Bill Moore, who led Independence to its last district title when he coached there, kidded Tuesday that he couldn’t wait until Hassell graduated.
After the title game, he updated his hope for Hassell to graduate a year early.
“His fastball was electric tonight,” Moore said. “His second pitch was working.”
After Independence’s initial surge, Brentwood pitcher Ross Wilkerson held the Eagles to three hits and no runs during the last five innings.
“I thought it should have been more of a 1-0 ballgame,” Moore said. “You take away the one inning where they scored two, our guy toed him all the way. I can’t say enough about how good a job he did not only tonight, buy the entire year.”
Brentwood leadoff hitter Jack Rando said Hassell didn’t miss at all Wednesday.
“He was spotting up on corners, keeping us off balance,” Rando said. “He was painting corners and when you paint corners at like, 88-89-mph, it’s hard to hit. I tip my hat to him.”
Brentwood rallied to beat Ravenwood 5-2 in the losers bracket final earlier in the day.
The Raptors (18-13) took a 2-0 lead after two innings before Brentwood scored two in the fourth and three in the sixth.
Brentwood’s Connor Smith scattered six hits for the win.
“We started out 0-6 and got off to a rocky start, and ended up finishing with 18 wins,” Raptors first-year coach Danny Borne said. “It was a testament to how hard these guys worked in the offseason. We put in 60 workouts before school this offseason to prepare for this.”