PARIS, Maine — Oxford Hills’ 8-1 start did not include a win from its No. 1 starter. Dalton Rice had pitched well enough for a ‘W’ or two, but couldn’t claim any one of those eight his own.
Rice made the Vikings’ biggest game of the year his own, though, which is why he’s still considered the ace of what is now indisputably one of the best pitching staffs in Class A.
Rice struck out seven, scattered six hits, didn’t walk anyone and spun a 4-1 complete-game gem over Hampden Academy that tilted the balance of power in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference from the North to the South and helped the Vikings leapfrog the Broncos for the top spot in the Eastern A Heal Points.
“This is my first win, but it doesn’t feel like it,” Rice said. “This is huge. They were supposed to be the top dog in the northern part of our (conference), and they’re a good team and a good hitting team. We just fought the entire game, got the bats going good early.”
“That kid was on the spot with everything,” said senior catcher Jordan Croteau, who drove in what proved to be the winning run in the first inning. “He’s been talking about how he hasn’t gotten a win yet, stressing out. He’s like ‘What am I doing wrong?’ and that stuff. We just told him to relax and pitch, and he pitched today. He showed us what he could do.”
The Vikings got all the runs they needed in the bottom of the first off Hampden starter Matt Palmer (5 innings, 5 hits, 3 earned runs, 3 strikeouts, 2 walks).
An error, Dylan Cox’s two-out double and Croteau’s single gave Oxford Hills (9-1) the quick lead.
“That’s awful helpful,” Oxford Hills coach Shane Slicer said. “When you take the lead, you can take some gambles here and there. And things went our way. We got some check swings for hits.”
Ben Bowie made it 3-1, emerging from a 10-pitch at bat against Palmer with a one-out walk. He stole second, moved to third on a groundout, then scored on a wild pitch.
“I think he was off a little bit,” Hampden Academy coach McLean Poulin said of Palmer. “He’s usually got a little more command than that. But again, you tip your cap because they got the bats on the ball. We had one little mistake early, and it cost us.”
Hampden (8-2) loaded the bases with one out in the fourth on singles by Logan Steward, Matt Closson and Michael Ward (two hits). Ward’s hit, or a pitch Rice thought was a third strike just before it, seemed to rattle him, so Slicer paid a visit to the mound.
“Dalton’s fiery, so it was a moment right then to calm him down,” Slicer said.
Matt Martin’s sacrifice fly scored Steward, but Rice got Patrick Later to ground out to second to strand the tying runs.
“They made every play, and they got some clutch hits to score some guys. We didn’t get that clutch hit,” said Poulin.
Rice allowed only one more baserunner with Cooper Antone’s one-out single in the fifth. He retired the final eight.
“I tried to work my fastball down so then when I had opportunities to throw off-speed, it made them a little off-balance,” Rice said.
“He’s been throwing the ball well. He’s had some bad breaks here and there,” Slicer said. “I couldn’t ask for a better performance.”
A Ty Martin walk, stolen base, sacrifice bunt and Bowie’s RBI single made it 4-1 in the fourth.
The Vikings had only five hits, but by the second inning, they had worked Palmer for more three-ball counts than the Broncos did to Rice the entire game.
“You go through the order and I don’t think we struck out the first time through,” Slicer said. “Yes, he’s throwing hard, but we’re making him work. I liked our approach at the plate.”
“This was huge for our confidence, just getting comfortable and know that we can play with these guys. We can play with anybody,” Croteau said.