SPRING HILL – Independence pitcher Robert Hassell ended the District 11-AAA tournament the same way he began the 2019 season. Only this time, his coach let him finish what he started.
Hassell struck out 17 Brentwood Bruins, firing the first no-hitter of his high school career as he carried the Independence Eagles to their first district championship since 2011 on Wednesday night at Summit High School.
“It was a perfect (ending to the district season),” Hassell said. “That was what I wanted to happen and that was a perfect scenario to get the team hyped and get us ready for regionals. I’m proud of our guys.”
The junior standout was lifted in the first game of the season with a 16-strikeout no-hitter going due to a high pitch count. But on Wednesday, Indy coach Mike McLaury decided to let his junior Vanderbilt commit finish this one out.
“It’s one to talk about for a long time,” McLaury stated. “He started the year with 16 strikeouts in six innings and I had to take him out because of his pitch count. I told him then I hoped he’d have another opportunity to get a no-hitter and he did tonight. He’s just unbelievable.”
“He was just trying to take care of my arm for a start like today,” Hassell said of McLaury’s early-season decision. “So, I'm fine with it. It all worked out in my favor at the end of the season, so I’m good with it.”
Independence drew first blood in the top of the first inning when Hassell reached on a leadoff double. Two batters later, William Burnette lined an RBI single to left field to bring Hassell home and give the Eagles some early momentum.
In the top of the second inning, Brentwood pitcher Ross Wilkerson appeared to be cruising toward a 1-2-3 inning after striking out Logan Molnar for the third out, but catcher Will Laughlin dropped the third strike and Molnar beat out the throw to first base.
Jackson Riedling walked in the next at bat and Hassell intentionally walked after that to load the bases for Will Tobin, who singled a hard-hit ground ball into right field that brought home Molnar and Riedling for the early 3-0 lead.
That was all the scoring the game would see as Wilkerson settled down, retiring 14 of the final 17 batters he faced and allowing just three singles the rest of the game. Wilkerson threw a complete game, striking out six and allowing just three runs on six hits.
“(Wilkerson) put together a great streak,” McLaury said. “I don’t know how many he retired in a row, I think it was eight or nine. Both pitchers for Brentwood threw well today. The first game against Ravenwood they had a complete game from Connor Smith, and we knew they were going to be tough. Things just happened to go our way.
“When you pitch like that, you don’t have to score very many. We got on the board early, Will Tobin had a big two-RBI hit and that kind of set the tone for us and Robert just took the game over.”
But for as good as the Bruins pitching was in the district tournament, Independence’s was just a little better. A point both McLaury and Hassell agreed on.
“This year, these guys battled all year,” McLaury said. “We grew and got better as the year went along. We pitched really, really well in this tournament.”
“Hitting-wise, everyone was kind of tired,” Hassell stated. “I had plenty of energy coming out of the gate, so I figured I’d give it the best I could on the mound. (Our) pitching I’m really proud of, it really came through in the tournament.”
Snapping an eight-year district title drought, Independence will now shift its focus to the region tournament where the Eagles will face Hillwood on Monday night.
“I’m tickled to death,” McLaury said. “This is my first year and first time coaching high school. This is my sixth year (overall) but I’m excited to see what you’ve got to do to get ready for (region tournament baseball).”