Will O’Neal hits the game-winning home run in the bottom of the eighth inning March 17 against Hatteras. Photo by Richard Taylor

By Richard Taylor 

Call it Ocracoke’s never-give-up attitude, a full moon on the rise or the luck of the Irish. Dolphin baseballers pulled off a stunning, come-from-behind 12-9 victory over hapless archrival Hatteras on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Good fortune was apparent even before the first pitch March 17 at the community ball field. Originally scheduled for the Hurricane diamond, a wet Buxton field and ferry limitations necessitated the game’s relocation to Ocracoke.

Ocracoke led 4-1 by the fourth inning, but Hatteras had other ideas. Excellent base running and a two-run homer by River Lester propelled Hatteras to a 7-7 tie in the top of the seventh.

The Dolphins could have won in the bottom of the seventh but failed to score even with the bases loaded, sending the contest into extra innings.

Hatteras again took the lead, 9-7, in the top of the eighth. The Dolphins answered with two runs of their own, knotting the score again at 9-9 with two outs in bottom of the extra inning,

Then, with Davis Grant on third and Finn Kattenburg on first, a 2-2 count and the game on the line, Will O’Neal connected with a fortuitous 3-run “walk-off” homer. Players and spectators watched in disbelief as the clutch hit sailed just over the left field fence and into the marsh behind the scoreboard and flagpole, near where Hatteras had homered earlier.

From the third base coaching box, Jim McClain waved runners Grant and Kattenburg towards home. O’Neal trotted triumphantly around the bases, realizing he had won the game with his first hit as a Dolphin.

“With two outs, you go on contact,” McClain explained later. “As soon as the ball hit the bat, I sent them home and just watched that ball keep going and going. Then it was gone.”

Spectators looked on in amazement as the ball barely cleared the fence before Grant and Kattenburg scored. Finally, O’Neal completed his triumphant trip around the bases and crossed home plate, later saying, “I watched the ball go into the sunset. It was beautiful.”

The exuberant home crowd erupted into jubilation, awestruck over sophomore O’Neal’s improbable feat. Teammates immediately lauded O’Neal with smiles, congrats and bear hugs. With no Gatorade cooler on hand, they dowsed him with bottled water.

Congratulating Will O’Neal for his game-winning homer. Photo by Richard Taylor

Facebook posters wrote Friday that cheering for “the shot heard ‘round the village” was audible blocks away.

Diehard Dolphins fan Linda Jackson always sits with friends behind the first base line fence. “We all thought Hatteras would catch it, but it went far enough, and the boys were tickled to death,” she said. “They all cheered Will and poured water on his head.”

Fletcher and Heather O’Neal’s son grinned for the rest of the afternoon, sporting a green Irish derby hat he borrowed from Erin O’Neal.

“Fletcher and I are very proud of William’s game-winning home run,” Heather said. “His hard work combined with a bit of Saint Patty’s Day luck for an exciting finish to the game! It’s a moment we will always remember.”

After returning home from drivers’ education training in Swan Quarter Sunday evening, O’Neal reflected on his memorable blast.

“I knew I had to do something to help us win,” he said. “Thankfully, I did. I’m usually nervous when I go to bat. This time I wasn’t at all.”

“Will’s homer will almost make the whole season for us,” said assistant coach Ernie Doshier.

Assistant coach David Esham quipped, “It was a fun day. It felt good when we won, finally.”

Almost unnoticed, McClain sent the batboy, his son Duncan, to retrieve the ball for O’Neal. “He’s a seasoned spider monkey,” the father said. “I wasn’t paying attention, but I’m sure he hopped over there and waded around in the marsh until he found it.”

The younger McClain then raced back to the sideline with the prize souvenir, which he promptly handed to his father outside the Dolphin dugout along the first base line.

“Duncan has been helping me at practices,” McLain said. “He’s become the team mascot, and he probably loves baseball more than anybody else on this island. “He was on cloud nine just for being able to be in the dugout with the big kids, feeling like he’s part of the team.”

Soon the coach borrowed a ballpoint pen and returned to the field. Kneeling on one knee just outside the dugout, he scribed “3/17/2022 Walk-off H.R. Will O’Neal” between the stitches as Duncan proudly looked over his shoulder.

“This was a monumental occasion,” the coach said. “We’ve never had a walk-off home run here at varsity on Ocracoke that I’m aware of. The home run’s what everybody’s going to remember. But all of that happened with two outs.  Of all the kids I’ve coached over the last few years, Will tries as hard as he can, all the time. That home run was a direct result of his effort.”

As the hugs and hoopla subsided, Dolphins took turns autographing the trophy ball, before starting pitcher Daymon Esham finally handed the “March Memento” back to O’Neal.

McClain noted his team’s positive attitude has been building for years. “We don’t give up,” he said. “In years past, we would have gotten sad and felt like we were beat. I give credit to our seniors (Jackson Strange, Julian Bennink and Brandt O’Neal) and juniors Chandler O’Neal, Davis Grant, Max Elicker and sophomore Daymon Esham.”

Will O’Neal with the game-winning baseball. Photo by Richard Taylor

McClain said Daymon is the primary starter who he tries to use judiciously. “I would say give Daymon the win and Jackson the save,” he said.

Two weeks ago, Ocracoke beat Hatteras here 17-0. “Since then, they’ve clearly done a lot of work,” McClain explained. “They played a much better game this time. I look forward to playing them again.”

After helping the Lady Dolphins to the Atlantic 5 (1A) regular season basketball conference title, Maren Donlon returned the baseball lineup in right field, snagging two long Hatteras fly balls.

“I used to sweat bullets when they hit a fly ball to the outfield,” McClain said about Donlon’s fielding.  “Those days are over. Her defense was outstanding.”

There are 20 players on the squad this year and he is trying to rotate them around to get everybody some playing time and experience.

“We focus on building baseball as a program and having it be as much fun as possible for all of them,” he said.

The Dolphins, now 4-1 overall, played Bear Grass (4-3 overall, 2-0 in conference) at home Tuesday (March 22). “Both teams are going to hit and it’s going to come down to solid defense,” the coach predicted. “Making the playoffs is going to depend on that game.”

The Dolphins luck ran out against powerhouse Bear Grass Charter here Tuesday (March 22). “Both teams are going to hit and it’s going to come down to solid defense,” McClain had predicted.

The Bears scored five runs in the first two innings. Each team held the other scoreless for the rest of the seven-inning game, making the final score still 5-0 Bear Grass.

Dolphin defense had its moments. Max Elicker struck out the side in the top of the sixth and the team shut down Bear Grass with the bases loaded in the top of the seventh. Ocracoke is now 4-2 overall and 2-1 in conference.

The struggling middle school boys lost 16-8 to Columbia at home Monday and play Mattamuskeet here today (March 23). The varsity travels to Columbia on Thursday.

Following the game, Islander Rachel O’Neal won $2,171 in a 50/50 raffle, which raised an equal amount to support both middle and varsity baseball.

For one shining moment on March 17, the moon, stars, sunset and fate all aligned over a small Outer Banks baseball field to create a magical memory that will linger long in the annals of Ocracoke sports.