OZARK, Mo. — Kyden McMain’s walk-off winner in the 7th inning of the Class 5 State Championship baseball game was a moment Willard had never seen.
Not only the first baseball state championship, but the first boys title for the Tigers across any sport.
But here on the brightest day of their lives they couldn’t help but reflect on the darkest day.
“I wanted to play in honor of Atch because he was one of the most important people in my life,” Willard Senior Shortstop Blake Hultgren said after the win.
Justin Atchison played for Willard’s Final Four teams in 2012 and 2013.
He came back to coach baseball and football.
He died November 10th, 2018 following a hunting accident.
Atch was 24.
The 2019 season was filled with emotion.
And the memory of Atch motivated an historic year – ending in a heartbreaking semifinal loss in the final inning.
“In 2019 we thought we were gonna get it for him,” Willard Head Coach Scott McGee said. “We were this close, this close. But that’s kind of how life works. You’ve just got to keep working a little bit at a time and sometimes things break through.”
The 2020 roster looked poised to provide that breakthrough, ranked number one in the state with eight starters returning.
But COVID provided a roadblock the Tigers couldn’t breakthrough.
Leaving the large senior class with only summer ball and no shot at the title.
“This is the season we had all been looking forward to since middle school: our senior year,” Former Willard senior Tyler Harre said back in 2020. “Always talking about going to state.”
As the 2020 seniors graduated, Willard’s 2021 roster went largely overlooked.
Providing the final bit of motivation.
Win it to prove people wrong.
Win it to claim Willard’s first title.
But most important in their minds: win it for Atch.
That is exactly what the Tigers did.
“What it should teach all of us as people is that our lives are meant to impact other people, and he did that,” McGee said.
“This might be one of his most proud moments, if not the most proud moment he’s ever had in his life,” Hultgren, who wears the same number four that Atch used to wear, said. “I know up there he’s just smiling bigger than ever probably.”