GLASGOW — Kendall Small didn’t even tag the base before raw emotion took over his body.
Small roared, pumped his fists, then stomped on first base before pounding Dover High pitcher Austin Johnson on the back.
Johnson had just gotten the biggest out of his high school career — forcing a bases-loaded grounder to Small at first with the potential tying and go-ahead runs on base for Hodgson with two outs in the sixth inning.
Three more outs and the Senators were celebrating in center field.
Johnson pitched four innings of one-run relief and Small drove in three runs as Dover won at Hodgson 9-7 in the DIAA baseball state tournament quarterfinals on Tuesday. It is the third year in a row the Senators have made the semifinals.
“It’s amazing,” Small said. “I was scared, if they got a base-hit they would tie the game, but I had confidence in A.J. I knew he could do it and he did it. He battled the entire time and didn’t give up many runs.”
The fifth-seeded Senators will face No. 8 Appoquinimink, which upset top seed St. Mark’s, on Thursday at Frawley Stadium at 7 p.m. Dover beat Appoquinimink in a regular season meeting, 5-2, on April 18.
Johnson took over from Small on the mound with two outs in the third inning after Hodgson had scored a pair of runs in to make it an 8-6 Dover lead. Catcher Andrew Mace threw out a runner at second to escape the inning and Johnson retired the side in the fourth.
He gave up the lone run on a passed ball in the bottom of the fifth, wiggled his way out of the jam in the sixth and needed two pitches for the first two outs in the seventh before forcing a flyball that was caught by a backpedaling Dakota Graham in dead center for the final out.
“I like coming into the game when everyone is counting on you,” Johnson said. “You got to come up big and make the best play.”
“That’s a kid who wanted to quit two years ago with a back issue and I begged him to come out,” said Dover coach Dave Gordon. “Last year he didn’t get much playing time and this year he’s stepped up for us. He held the fort down, did a great job and he’s my MVP today.
“The kid competes and you feel good about that. You go, ‘Hey I got a bulldog on the mound.’ Yes, he is a role player and that’s something we talk about at Dover High. Not everybody can be a starter but role players can play too and play huge roles. That’s what he did today and he just propelled his team back to Frawley Stadium.”
This was a game that had plenty of dramatic and confusing moments.
One of those twist and turns came in the top of the sixth when Hodgson put its ace, senior pitcher Brandon Walter in to pitch. Walter, a University of Delaware signee, threw six innings in the first round of Saturday, meaning he was eligible to pitch on two days of rest.
But the Senators were able to get to Walter. Graham and Jordan Hutchins walked to bring up Small with two outs. Small laced a single into right for a key insurance run.
“It was huge,” Small said. “Our whole dugout got up quick and back in the field we had all the confidence in the world.”
“He’s a college baseball player for a reason.” said Gordon about Small. “He’s going to Division II Wilmington, but I’ve been saying for years that I feel like he’s a Division I player. He got us a big run there.”
Hodgson threatened in the bottom half with two singles to bring up Walter, its cleanup batter, with two out.
During the at-bat, Johnson balked on a pickoff move, sending the two runners to scoring position. Gordon elected to intentially walk Walter, putting the go-ahead run on base. Johnson needed one pitch to get the grounder to Small.
“The balk made it easy for us to walk him,” Gordon said. “We were going to pitch around him because I would have rather faced the other kid. Even if you put the tying run at second,
it’s high school baseball and you can get away with stuff like that. We did that and got a groundball right to probably the best first baseman in the state.”
“I got a good defense behind me and I can count on them a lot,” Johnson said. “That was one more step to get those final three outs so we could go on to Frawley. All the hard work pays off.”
The balk called on Johnson was nothing compared to what happened in the early innings.
Hodgson’s starter was called for five balks, all for not coming set before his delivery, and two led to runs. Other strange instances included a potential sixth balk overturned on a pickoff, a Hodgson player being ejected during an at-bat and Dover getting the final out of the fifth inning on an appeal after a Hodgson runner was judged to have missed first base while going to second.
Graham scored three runs for Dover and knocked in a pair with a double in the second. Tevin Thomas also doubled and scored twice.
“Not once did I think we looked nervous,” Gordon said. “That’s experience and you can’t put a pricetag on that. We kept battling.”
While Dover has made the semifinals the last two seasons, the Senators were knocked out both times by Caravel.
“It’s their work ethic and fight that got us back here and maybe the third time is the charm,” Gordon said. “They remember last year, a lot of us were crying on the bus ride home.
This all started back in the offseason with kids showing up everyday to the weight room with coach Bunnion, having two sessions because we had too many kids in there. With all the adversity we’ve been through this year, they put in the work for this.”