WARDSVILLE — People rarely look 20 games down the line before a season begins, but the Blair Oaks Falcons and the Southern Boone Eagles have had Thursday's game circled on their calendars for quite some time.
It was the pitching matchup fans had been waiting to see: Southern Boone left-handed senior Ethan Osborne — who will pitch next spring at Southeast Missouri — and Blair Oaks left-handed sophomore Wil Libbert.
The fans got their pitchers' duel, and they nearly saw a no-hitter, too.
Libbert carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning, while his offense gave him three big runs in the third inning. Blair Oaks took sole possession of first place in the Tri-County Conference with a 4-1 win against Southern Boone at the Falcon Athletic Complex.
"We knew Osborne was going to be tough, and he was," Blair Oaks coach Mike DeMilia said. "But I really liked the way we competed, and Wil was really good."
Libbert, who combined with Cade Stockman to pitch a no-hitter earlier this month at Helias, held the Eagles without a hit through six innings in just his sixth start as a pitcher in his high school career.
"I like big games," Libbert said. "I just like playing against good teams."
Osborne broke up Libbert's no-hit bid with a leadoff double to right-center field in the seventh inning. Libbert lasted one more batter, reaching his 95-pitch limit on his 11th strikeout of the game.
"He's thrown a no-hitter through six innings against two really good teams," DeMilia said of Libbert. "To be in that position is pretty crazy, but he's that good.
"We feel like we should win every time he's on the mound. It doesn't always happen, but we feel pretty confident."
Southern Boone's best scoring chance came in the top of the second inning. The Eagles had runners on first and third base with one out, but Blair Oaks catcher Levi Haney threw out Austin Evans attempting to steal second on a close play.
"That was a huge throw," DeMilia said. "That might have been the play of the game. If they take the lead there 1-0, that changes the complexion of the game."
Libbert finished the inning with a strikeout to escape the jam and keep the game scoreless.
Osborne struck out three of the first six batters he faced, but Josh Isaacs' plate appearance to begin the bottom of the third inning turned the tide for Blair Oaks.
Isaacs fell behind 0-2, then fouled off three pitches before eventually drawing a nine-pitch walk.
"He grinded out that at-bat, and that's what we do," DeMilia said. " We got him in the stretch (after that), because when he's in the windup and in rhythm, he's really tough."
The Falcons had a few more lengthy plate appearances that pushed Osborne's pitch count to 93 through four innings. Osborne gave up three runs on four hits with two walks and eight strikeouts.
"They did a good job of really pushing Ethan's pitch count up," Southern Boone coach Brian Ash said. "They were fouling pitches off, having eight-pitch at-bats over and over. They were fouling stuff off until they could get something they could make contact with."
Isaacs advanced to second base on a wild pitch, then Dylan Hair singled up the middle. Isaacs came around to score on a bang-bang play at the plate, giving Blair Oaks a 1-0 lead.
After a Lane Libbert walk, Hayden Salmons hit a ground ball to the second baseman. Salmons, a left-handed hitter, sprinted to first base, forcing a hurried throw that got away from the first baseman. Hair came around to score from second base to make the score 2-0.
Lane Libbert gave the Falcons a three-run lead, scoring on a balk.
"When you're up 1-0, you're still a base hit, a bunt and a base hit from tying it up," DeMilia said. "I know they like to play a little small ball, so that kind of took them out of it, they had to play for the big inning."
Carter Salter relieved Osborne in the fifth. Blair Oaks scored its final run that inning, as Lane Libbert hit a leadoff triple to right-center and Reid Dudenhoeffer drove him in with a double.
Aside from that, Salter retired the other five hitters he faced in two innings, striking out four.
"Everyone thinks you have to throw hard like Wil and Ethan do," DeMilia said. "But (Carter) just has a good breaking ball, he doesn't throw overly hard, he throws strikes and he mixes it up."
Osborne scored on a wild pitch in the seventh to break up the shutout, but Isaacs — who relieved Wil Libbert — struck out two of the three batters he faced to end the game.
Thursday was Southern Boone's final Tri-County game of the season, finishing 6-1 in conference. It was the fourth game in as many days for the Eagles, who outscored Tri-County opponents 59-9 this season.
"Our hope is we see them again down the road," said Ash, referencing the possibility of a state sectional matchup between the Class 4 District 7 Eagles and the Class 4 District 8 Falcons.
Blair Oaks is 4-0 in the Tri-County, with games May 6 against School of the Osage and May 10 at California remaining.
"Conference isn't our ultimate goal, we want to win a state title and districts, things like that," DeMilia said. "But winning conference, especially in this conference, is good.
"We obviously have not won anything yet, we still have two games left, but we knew this was the big one. We would have been out of it if we lost."
Southern Boone (18-2), the No. 3 team in Class 4, had its 14-game winning streak snapped with Thursday's loss. The Eagles will play three games next week as the No. 1 seed in the Fulton Tournament, beginning Monday with a first-round game at home against Moberly.
"We just want to clean up some things," Ash said. "We've played so many games in a short amount of time that we haven't had an opportunity to practice. We'll get back to practice tomorrow and figure out a way to keep winning."
Blair Oaks (17-4), the No. 5 team in Class 4, will play a pair of bonus games Saturday at South Callaway, looking to finish the week 5-0. The Falcons open against the Bulldogs at 10 a.m. and turn around to face Palmyra at 12:30 p.m.
"This team, outside of a couple games, has been really good," DeMilia said. "We're getting there. We've still got things to work on, we're not perfect yet."
Blair Oaks and Southern Boone played to a tie at 1 in five innings in Thursday's JV game.
Aiden Boeckmann finished with three strikeouts in five innings for Blair Oaks (6-4-1), allowing one run on four hits with two walks. Cale Willson drove in the Falcons' only run with a single in the bottom of the first inning, scoring Harrison Lear.