Back where they belong: Appearing in 10th straight state tournament, Bridgeport pursues eighth consecutive championship

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — Appearing in its 10th consecutive state tournament and in pursuit of an eighth straight state championship, Bridgeport is gearing up for a Class AAA semifinal Friday night against Hurricane in a matchup of two of the state’s premier programs.

Although each season features different storylines and a change in the cast of characters, the constant continues to be the Tribe’s ability to win when it matters most under veteran head coach Robert Shields.

This year’s group features 11 seniors that have experienced more success than most high school athletes can dream of. A victory over the Redskins in Friday’s semifinal would enable BHS to play for a second straight Class AAA championship after the Indians claimed six consecutive AA crowns from 2014-2019. There was no 2020 baseball season as a result of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These kids have been loyal to our baseball program and what I feel best about is they work together,” Shields said. “That’s really important. Then our underclassmen that come in and fill roles, they do a great job. They’re together and we have some very good leaders.”

Bridgeport (34-5) returns to Appalachian Power Park with an abundance of confidence and a roster not lacking players with experience on the state’s biggest state for high school baseball, though the Indians nearly never had this opportunity.

After falling to University 13-3 on May 11 to start sectional play, the Tribe were forced to navigate through the loser’s bracket. Bridgeport responded with a 10-1 win over Buckhannon-Upshur to avoid elimination, then beat the Hawks 12-2 to force a winner-take-all sectional title game against UHS.

In its third matchup with University of that week, the Indians fell behind 2-0, before scoring 10 straight runs to build what looked to be a comfortable advantage. However, the Hawks answered and eventually tied the game at 10. A pivotal triple play helped prevent Shields’ squad from falling behind a second time, and the Indians went on to score a run in the bottom of the sixth inning and prevail, 11-10.

That allowed Bridgeport to face Morgantown in a Region I series with a state tournament spot at stake.

Behind stellar pitching, timely hitting and quality defense, the Indians swept the best-of-three set. They overcame a 1-0 seventh-inning deficit in the series opener to win 5-1 and followed it the next day with a 5-2 victory at home to finish off the regional.

“It means a lot, because we just came through a heck of a section with University having improved as much as they did,” Shields said. “And then Morgantown, they have a nice lineup and [Reed] Bailey threw a heck of a game 1 against us. We found a way in the seventh inning.”

The Indians faced the Mohigans four times this season, and while Morgantown won the opening matchup, Bridgeport claimed the last three, including the two that mattered most.

Of all the strengths Bridgeport possesses, perhaps nothing stood out more to MHS coach Pat Sherald than the Tribe’s pitching staff, headlined by a quartet of seniors — right handers Chris Harbert and Austin Mann and southpaws Ben McDougal and Anthony Dixon. It was Harbert who dueled with Bailey in the regional opener, before McDougal tossed five innings in the second game of the series. Mann, meanwhile, closed out both victories on the mound.

“They compete. Harbert and Bailey had an absolute pitchers’ duel, back-and-forth. It was a great high school game,” Sherald said. “He gave them a chance. McDougal competed for them. They have Dixon and Mann also, so from a pitching standpoint, from the times we saw them, they really competed.

“Offensively, they have athletes around the field and especially up the middle. They’re athletic up the middle and they have some guys that can drive the baseball. They took advantage of opportunities whereas we didn’t take advantage of our opportunities.”

Austin Mann delivers a pitch. Photo by Ben Queen/

Now it’s a week’s worth of preparation for Hurricane (31-4), which claimed a 7-6 walk-off win over Bridgeport back on April 9 in the teams’ only meeting this season. A year ago, Bridgeport got the better of the Redskins in the Class AAA final, 10-4.

McDougal was the starting pitcher in last season’s title game, though Ryan Goff, who has since graduated, worked 4 1/3 innings to earn the win. Still, considering Harbert threw five innings in last season’s semifinal win over Jefferson, which Mann finished off in relief, stage fright shouldn’t come into play for Shields’ team.

“We have a lot of seniors that participated last year in one form or the other, but pitching is really the key and the experience with three of the kids that we used — Ben McDougal, Chris Harbert and Austin Mann,” Shields said. “That’s a very important part of it when you get down to these games — pitching, timely hitting and solid defense.”

Shields has been known to rely on seldom-used pitchers throughout the regular season when his team plays in Charleston, though that appears unlikely this season with the wealth of experience across the staff.

Harbert, who battled a lower back injury earlier in the season, is back at full strength, while the versatile Mann has solidified a key role in relief.

“He had several starts this year, but his strong suit is coming in and closing. That’s something that Austin does really well,” Shields said. “He did it last year. Come tournament time, he thrives in situations like that and he picked up back to back saves in the Morgantown series.

“Pound for pound, you’re not going to find anybody grittier than him.”

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