OZARK — The Linn Wildcats had a big top of the first inning.
The St. Pius X: Kansas City Warriors just happened to have a better bottom of the first inning.
The Wildcats scored three runs, the Warriors answered with five and never trailed again, as St. Pius X won 10-5 to claim the Class 3 baseball state championship Thursday afternoon at U.S. Baseball Park.
"We came here with one goal, and that was to win the state championship," Linn coach Briar Hancock said. "We didn't get it done. I know it kind of hurts, but hopefully these young guys have seen what this senior class has done, and hopefully they can pick up where they left off."
Linn finished the season with a 16-10 record in Hancock's first spring season as coach, and the second-place finish is the Wildcats' best run in the state playoffs in program history.
"Honestly, I'm on Cloud Nine," Hancock said. "These guys have been awesome ever since Day 1. They took me in, and I've learned a lot from them."
The Wildcats stepped to the plate first in the game, and three of the first four batters drew a walk against St. Pius X starting pitcher Ryan Hamann.
Kaleb Brandt hit a sacrifice fly to left field, scoring Caden Robinson, and Hayden Phillips lined a two-out single to right-center field, scoring Andy Hueste and Austin McKim. By the time the top of the first ended, the Wildcats had a 3-0 lead in their first-ever state title game.
"We come into every game confident and aggressive," Hancock said. "Putting up three runs early was huge for us."
Brandt, Linn's starting pitcher, nearly worked out of a jam in the bottom of the first, striking out back-to-back batters with two runners on base, but St. Pius X scored a run on a wild pitch and then drew three straight walks, plating another run to cut the Wildcats' lead to 3-2.
The Warriors' No. 8 hitter, Karter Muck, followed with a bases-clearing triple to straightaway center field, putting St. Pius X on top 5-3, with all five runs scoring with two outs.
"It just wasn't his day, and that happens," Hancock said of Brandt, who was relieved as pitcher after Muck's triple.
Brandt found other ways to contribute, reaching base in his next three plate appearances and making a handful of great defensive plays at third base.
"Kaleb kept his head up and continued to play great at third base, continued to hit the ball as well," Hancock said.
Junior left-hander Keagan Heywood relieved Brandt on the mound, just as he did in the state quarterfinals against Skyline. With the change of speeds between the two pitchers, Heywood escaped further trouble in the first inning with a strikeout, then limited St. Pius X to just one run during the next four innings.
"We knew that St. Pius has great competition, they probably have never seen somebody like Keagan, with his velocity and movement," Hancock said.
Linn answered back with one run in the second, as Robinson hit a one-out single and scored on a groundout to the second baseman by Aidan Kline. The Wildcats had the tying run on third base, but Chase Wilcox — who relieved Hamann on the mound in the second — got a fielder's choice to end the inning and keep the Warriors in front 5-4.
St. Pius X pushed its lead back to two with an RBI double by Jack Mosh in the fourth, but Linn closed the gap to one again in the fifth, as Brandt hit a leadoff double to right-center and scored on Cody Leivian's double down the left-field line, making the score 6-5.
The Wildcats had at least one batter reach base in every inning except the sixth. However, Linn left nine runners on base, a day after stranding 12 runners in its semifinal win against Elsberry.
"That was our lowest-scoring game since districts," Hancock said. "They did a very good job of holding us down. Kudos to them, they held us to five runs. We just couldn't get it going."
St. Pius X (23-3) plated four more runs in the bottom of the sixth, getting triples from Caleb McClellan and Thomas Janning and a double from Luke Feucht.
Mosh and McClellan each had two hits for the Warriors, while Phillips and Leivian each had a pair of hits for the Wildcats.
In a game that quickly became defined by relief pitching, Wilcox surrendered just one run on six hits with two walks and five strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings for St. Pius X. Heywood pitched 5 1/3 innings and allowed five runs on eight hits with three walks and one strikeout.
Linn, which had 14 players on its varsity roster, will graduate six seniors: Phillips, Robinson, McKim, Hueste, Brandt and Matthew Nenninger, who made up two-thirds of the starting lineup in Thursday's state championship game.
"Hopefully we're on the upward trend and this is not the ceiling for us," Hancock said. "We have some young guys that have potential and a big freshman class coming up. Hopefully we're in this area again soon."