Milford baseball exceeding own expectations

Milford’s Caden Stanley gets hit by a pitch in the game against St. Elizabeth earlier in the season. ( Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

MILFORD — It’s been six years to the day since Milford High has won a DIAA baseball state tournament game.

The Bucs hope to put an end to that drought as they head into this year’s tourney.

With just eight wins a season ago, the Milford baseball team doubled that total this year and finished undefeated against Henlopen Conference southern division opponents.

“It’s been fun, it’s nice to see the kids getting confident in themselves and seeing the momentum carry from game to game,” said Bucs coach Nick Brannan.

With Saturday’s 10-2 nonconference win over Archmere Academy, the Bucs finished the regular season 16-2 and grabbed the No. 5 seed and a first-round bye in the state tournament.

Its Milford’s best regular season record since matching that win total in 2011.

They’ll host the winner of No. 12 Cape Henlopen High and No. 21 Caesar Rodney High this Saturday at noon.

“I don’t think anyone expected the results to be this good,” Brannan said. “I expected to compete for a tournament spot, but we’ve exceeded what we could have imagined these guys are doing, and I don’t think we’re done yet.”

The Bucs just missed out on a tourney appearance last season but will be making its fourth playoff berth over the last five seasons.

“Going into the season I was excited,” said junior Chad Reichhold. “I knew we had a lot of talent on this team and a great coaching staff. I knew we had it in us, and it’s just really cool to see us put it into play.”

“I know last year we lost a lot of good players, and I knew we were going to have to grind for every win this year,” senior Brock Hilligoss added. “We don’t really blow any teams away athletically, so we just have to be scrappy and find a way.”

Milford’s only two losses came against northern division opponents Sussex Tech High and Dover High.

Tech shut the Bucs out, 4-0, on April 11 while Dover squeezed out a 1-0 victory May 9.

“In those situations, you can’t win if you don’t score runs,” said senior Dylan Layton. “We realized that and made changes and have gotten better. That’s a big part of it, just getting better at the plate.”

“We were in those games, they were real competitive,” said Brannan. “So, we really feel that we can compete with anybody, it’s just a matter of executing opportunities.”

A strong senior class made up of Layton, Hilligoss, Caden Stanley, Jaxson Turner, Bryan Bullock, Mason Haggerty and Khailer Hitchens has complemented the freshman trio of Mason Morris, Shawn Saxon and Aydin Zimmerman well.

“We have three freshman and they can play,” Brannan said. “I think they brought the best out of those seniors because they recognized, ‘oh my goodness, we complement each other really well.’ I think that was really big.”

Morris and Saxon have started every game at catcher and shortstop, respectively, while Zimmerman has started all but one game at third base. Each of them earned All-Conference honors.

“They blew everybody away right out of the gate,” Reichhold said of the freshmen. “Without them, I don’t know where we’d be right now.”

Reichhold, Layton and Hilligoss anchor a pitching staff, which also includes appearances from sophomores Cam Walsen and Alex Mergner, that has tossed four shutouts and allowed five or fewer runs in 17 of its 18 games.

Hilligoss and Reichhold have each made 10 appearances, with Hilligoss making eight starts and putting up a 7-0 record and Reichhold making seven with a 5-2 record. Layton is 3-0 in his three starts.

Walsen and Mergner have 8.2 innings of relief and three saves between them.

As strong as the pitching staff has been, Brannan, the Henlopen Conference Coach of the Year, says the uptick in production could be associated with the fact they have cut down on defensive errors.

“We talk about the pitching, but what can’t go unnoticed is that we only made 23 errors this year and that’s down from about 53 last year,” he said. “The pitching pretty much stayed the same, except we were able to go ahead and make the routine play behind them and that gave our guys the ability to pitch with more confidence.”

While there’s a bit of added pressure once tournament time rolls around, the Bucs have seemingly hit their stride at the right time, winning its last three games by a combined 30-6.

“It’s a little bit more pressure, but I have faith in myself and everybody around me to push through and keep winning,” Hilligoss said.

“The more we believe in ourselves, the more shocked we’re going to make other people,” said Brannan.

Reach staff writer Ben Heck at bheck@newszap.com

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