GateHouse Media Ohio

CANTON: The defending state champions didn’t have many players who were key parts of their glorious 2017.

What Jackson did have was the look of a state champion in 2018 — at least for most of Friday’s Division I regional final against Highland.

Then it all fell apart during a five-run seventh that set up the Hornets’ 8-7 win in one extra inning at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium.

With their own grit and plenty of help from the Polar Bears, Highland scored two runs in the sixth, five in the seventh and one in the eighth to advance to next Friday’s state semifinals.

The Hornets feasted on five hits, seven walks, two errors and a hit batsman in the final three innings. The winning run scored on a wild pitch with two outs in the top of the eighth.

“That’s the best game I’ve ever been a part of,” said Highland senior shortstop Gavin Noble, who ignited the big inning with a single and wound up pitching a one-two-three bottom of the eighth. “We had to come back a long way, but I never think we’re done.”

Baseball has a thousand faces, and the Bears seemed to recognize what to do with every one of them in taking a 6-0 lead through five innings.

“It’s seven innings,” said Jackson coach Bill Gamble, whose team fell to 27-6. “We didn’t close it out. Highland did. We’re not going to Columbus. We’re going home.”

Highland advanced to the first baseball final four in program history and will face Olentangy Liberty at 10 a.m. next Friday at Huntington Park in Columbus.

Highland (20-9) has played a strong schedule that included early losses to teams from Pittsburgh, the Bronx and Illinois.

Junior righty Taylor Johnson started for Jackson. He struck out the first two batters on curveballs before getting the No. 3 hitter, Jonathan Ambro, to ground out to first. Ambro also was the starting pitcher, a 6-foot-5 right-hander with a crisp fastball.

Jackson broke through in the second. Jake Ryan drew a one-out walk, stole second and advanced to third on Ryan Lahr’s single in front of a charging right fielder.

Ryan broke on the first pitch to Josh Romans, who laid down a beauty of a squeeze bunt that left no shot at a throw to the plate. It was 1-0.

Baseball’s oddities mingled with Jackson advancing its lead to 3-0 in the third. Matt Hicks led off with a single. Spencer Stanton’s blast to left easily was the best-hit ball to that point, but in a big park, left fielder Andrew Shaw had no worries about running into the fence and caught up with the blast at the warning track.

But Trent Jones reached on a bad-hop single and Davis Graham walked to load the bases. Jake Ryan barely hit a ball that knuckled to an open spot equidistant from the third baseman, shortstop and pitcher. It dropped to score a run, then a wild pitch tacked on another.

The Bears knocked out Ambro in a three-run fifth. The first run came on Ryan’s two-out single through the hole followed by Jones’ textbook slide across home plate. After a run scored on a wild pitch, pinch hitter Ben Hymes smashed an RBI single up the middle. It was 6-0 after five innings.

In the sixth, a leadoff error and a walk prompted Gamble to lift Johnson.

A ground ball that would have been the 21st out kept the seventh inning alive. Sam Zeleznik, one of seven consecutive seniors in Highland’s batting order, ripped out a two-out, two-run single to cap the five-run inning and make it 8-7.

Jackson tied it with a two-out run on a wild pitch in the bottom of the seventh, but three consecutive one-out walks in the top of the eighth led to Highland’s winning run on a wild pitch.

“This is pretty special,” said Ambro. “It’s the first time Highland has ever won a regional baseball title. We’re taking this moment. But we’re definitely not done.”