Liberty rallies to capture first section baseball title with 9-6 win over Clovis West

VISALIA — With trophy in hand, the Liberty baseball team couldn’t contain itself any longer, celebrating in unison across all corners of Valley Strong Ballpark Saturday night.

It was the culmination of an amazing night as Patriots channeled that collective energy into an unbelievable turnaround, capped by the program’s first Central Section championship in school history.

Brady Baird provided the spark with a three-run home run in the third inning, Evan Churchman pitched three scoreless innings on three days' rest, and Brock Thompson retired the final three batters to complete the comeback in No. 2 Liberty’s 9-6 victory over top-seeded Clovis West.

“These guys are gritty,” said Tony Mills, Liberty’s 18-year head coach. “You know I’ve said it all year long. This team’s got backbone. And when it needs to rear its head it does.”

The victory was the 17th straight for the Patriots (29-4), who will now turn their sights to the Southern California Regional playoffs that start on Tuesday. Where and who they will play will be announced Sunday afternoon.

It's the third straight Division-I baseball title for a Kern County team. Stockdale won in 2022, and Centennial rallied to win it last year as a No. 9 seed.

“That’s a quality program, traditionally. Clovis West is an unbelievable program,” Mills said. “But my guys, they just find ways to win. They play the game the right way and they’ve been a pleasure to coach. Boy, this is a good one.”

After a miserable start to the game that may have toppled the spirit of a lesser team, Liberty picked itself up and had a counter for anything the Golden Eagles (26-7) had to offer.

It all came to a head in the seventh, with the Patriots holding a three-run lead after exhausting their top two pitchers, Churchman and Chance Gerecke, who were a combined 23-2 this season.

Thompson, an Oklahoma State commit who serves as the team’s starting shortstop and leadoff batter, took the mound and didn’t miss a beat, retiring Clovis West’s Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters.

“I didn’t play my best today on the offensive side,” said Thompson, who was 0 for 2 with two strikeouts and two walks. “I was doing well through the playoffs and tonight I just didn’t have it. So I wanted to do whatever I could to get it done. I kept it going on defense and then held the lead in that last inning and we took home the championship.”

The hard-throwing senior right-hander’s third save of the season was capped by a fly out to shallow right field that Davis Goodwin squeezed into his glove to ignite the team’s epic celebration.

“I had all kinds of emotions going through my body,” said Thompson, who was a freshman on the Liberty team that lost 17-4 in the final to Clovis-Buchanan in 2021. “I was trying not to throw up, and just seeing the family finally get to celebrate together on the big stage, and we did it.”

Clovis West started on fire in the bottom of the first by turning three hits and two walks into a 3-0 lead.

But things began to turn around in the third. Patriots No. 9 hitter Jack Locklear led off with a single to right — Liberty’s first hit — Thompson walked, and Grant Voss reached on an error that allowed Locklear to score Liberty's first run.

Baird then launched an offering from Golden Eagle right-hander Jake Turley over the right-field fence, bouncing off the top of a roof in front of the venue’s dog park for a 4-3 Patriots lead.

“I was just trying to hit something to right-center, but it just happened to go out,” said Baird, who also homered in a semifinal over Clovis North on Tuesday. “I really got all of it, but I did not think it was going out. It’s an amazing feeling. I’m just glad we gave it to Mills. He’s been wanting this for so long. We all wanted it really bad.”

Clovis West quickly countered with three runs for a 6-4 advantage, but it proved to be short-lived.

Liberty sent 10 batters to the plate in the the fifth in a rally that started off Golden Eagles reliever Brock Santos and continued against Tyler Patrick.

“It’s very sweet to win,” Mills said. “You know you get into this thing for a long time, and as long as I’ve been doing it, and not winning a section championship, sure that’s always in the back of your mind. I always say that you have to play one game at a time. Today was about the culmination of what we were planning for when we were playing a young lineup last year.”

Baird reached on an infield hit to open the fifth and moved to third on a double by Goodwin to deep center field. Caden Churchman was then hit by a pitch, ending the night for Santos. Tryce Spainhoward greeted Patrick with a two-run double down the right-field line to tie the game at 6.

Gerecke, who started on the mound for Liberty, reached on a fielder’s-choice grounder, loading the bases when Clovis West’s attempt to get Caden Churchman at third failed.

Caden Churchman came home on a sacrifice fly by Nick Martin, and after Thompson was intentionally walked, Grant Voss singled home two more runs for a 9-6 lead.

“I knew it was going to be a slugfest just because of the way the pitching situation was,” Mills said. ”But how about the ‘Nature Boy,’ Evan Churchman, just coming in and goes three innings for us perfectly. He calmed the waters and then we brought Thompson in. What a heck of a player, and he did a heck of a job.

“But we just got timely hitting. They intentionally walk Thompson, which is the play, and then Grant Voss makes them pay with a two-RBI single. I mean it was just a heck of a game.”

Evan Churchman (11-2), Caden’s twin brother, started the fourth inning, just three days after tossing a complete-game five-hitter in a 9-1 semifinal victory over Clovis North.

“All these people came to see us, and I had to show-out,” Evan Churchman said. “It’s not just me. It’s all of these seniors and the juniors … that grinded their season right here. Grinding and grinding and we finished it off.”

On the heels of another big inning by the Golden Eagles, he restored order in a hurry, retiring the first eight batters as part of three scoreless innings, holding a three-run cushion before Thompson relieved in the seventh.

“Early in the game (Clovis West) got two huge two-out base hits,” Mills said. “They got a crooked number and we were chasing the whole night. But you just have to give it up for my guys. The way they play and the way they believe in each other, the way they care about each other — and man do they love each other. It’s such a blessing to be around.”