Reprinted courtesy of PETE SWANSON firstname.lastname@example.org
BATESVILLE —Off the pitching mound as well as on, Princeton Senior American Legion baseball men are well-armed.
That, much as anything else, explains Sunday’s come-from-behind and come-from-a-5-5 tie to a 6-5 state championship win over Terre Haute Wayne Newton on the East Central High School diamond.
Behind 3-0 after three innings, ahead 5-3 after six but tied 5-5 after eight, Post 25 fundamentally executed a ninth-inning run, and then withstood three Terre Haute hits in the bo
ttom of the ninth, thanks to throw-outs by catcher Caleb Wagner and left fielder Brooks Martin.
Knowing they were Great Lakes Regional-bound when regional host Terre Haute beat Bristol 9-6 Saturday night in the losers’ bracket final, the Princetons seemed for a while to be headed for defeat in Sunday’s opener, a result that would have forced the championship round to a second game. But Wagner, Martin and teammates didn’t let it come to that, and thus won for the 18th time in their last 21 games.
State champion for the first time since 1964, a couple weeks after Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination for President, Post 25 will take a 24-12 record against defending Great Lakes champion Moline, Ill., at 4 p.m. CDT Thursday on Indiana State University’s Bob Warn Field. Moline, which beat Terre Haute twice in the 2012 regional championship round in Midland, Mich., heads to Terre Haute as Illinois runnerup.
“We got beat by a good team,” said Terre Haute Manager John Hayes, whose team won three of five state tournament games, its other loss by 4-0 Saturday afternoon to Princeton and complete-game pitcher Lucas Lantrip.
“Good teams win games the way Princeton won today. We have no sour grapes,” said Hayes, whose 29th Wayne Newton team will take a 37-12 record into the national regional.
Post 25’s fourth state championship — the first two came in 1931 and 1960 — capped a rebound from a 6-9 record in late-June. “Had anybody told me after about eight games that we’d win state, I’d have laughed,” said Tyler Stolz, who moved from third base midway in the eighth inning after lefthander Alec Sandefer had pitched the first seven frames and to four batters in the eighth.
“We kept stressing in early-season that since a lot of our guys played in last year’s state tournament in Plymouth, we had what it takes,” Princeton Manager Jesse Simmons said.
“Everything we asked these kids to do, they’ve done. We made lineup changes, but they never complained.
“This is a great feeling. And man. What great throws.”
Given a 6-5 lead via Jared Melliff’s sharp bouncing double over third base, Cory Lamey’s sacrifice bunt on which Melliff ran with the pitch, and Alex Holder’s sacrifice fly to left field, Stolz began the bottom of the ninth by hitting Jacob Johnson on the third pitch. “I thought, Oh my God. This is unreal,” the 18-year-old Stolz said.
But when Johnson tried a delayed steal, Wagner threw him out by gunning the ball to second baseman Melliff, who made the tag-out.
“Tobe (first baseman Dillon Whitten) and I have a sign. We were going to try a pickoff,” the 17-year-old Wagner said.
“My body was already halfway turned when I saw the runner took off. So I threw across my body to Jared.”
That play loomed larger when Cody Brock and Sam Wolf singled, Wolf’s hit sending pinch runner Greg Hannum to second. And larger yet when Cody Thornton grounded a single to left field, and Hayes waved Hannum to try for home.
But Martin came up with the ball and gunned a one-bounce throw to Wagner, who tagged the sliding Hannum short of the plate.
“No question about sending Greg,” said Hayes.
“The left fielder bobbled the ball, but then he made a perfect throw.”
The 17-year-old Martin, who in the first inning caught Thornton’s liner and doubled Brock off second base with a strong throw to Melliff, “knew I had to charge Thornton’s hit in the ninth.
“When the ball hit my glove, it bounced and rolled out. I thought, ‘Oh no.’ Fortunately, I caught it with my bare hand. I saw that I had a shot at throwing out the guy at home, so I put everything I’ve got into the that throw.”
Wagner “knew that since they’d put in a pinch runner, he’d be faster than the guy he replaced. Then the ball rolled up Brooks’ arm. Somehow he caught it and threw home.
“I thought his throw would bounce toward third base. But it bounced right to me and I just had to make the tag.”
Wolf had advanced to third on Thornton’s hit. Then Preston Tofaute hit a bouncer that, seemingly routine, took a high hop and made Melliff leap. Cap-high, he gloved the ball and threw to Whitten for the state championship-clinching out.
“It felt like the ball took forever to get to me,” the 19-year-old Melliff said.
“But once I fielded it, I knew the game was over.”
Stolz recounted that “when Jared jumped to get that ball, I jumped as high as he did.” Simmons confessed that “I was off my feet.”
Sandefer, who yielded five runs but only two earned while allowing seven hits and a walk and striking out two, retired 10 straight batters at one stretch and took a 5-3 lead into the eighth. But shortstop Holder’s inning-opening throwing error let Wolf reach second, Thornton followed with an RBI double, Tofaute beat out a bunt, and Connor Pierce walked to fill the bases on a 3-2 pitch that Sandefer was sure was a curve strike three. That brought Stolz to the mound, with Alec Werry entering at third base.
Before it got better it got worse. Stolz’ second pitch to Craig Peters was a wild pitch, Thornton scoring for a 5-5 tie and other runners advancing to second and third. “I said a bunch of choice words to myself,” said Stolz.
“But I knew I had to make good pitches. I threw just one curve after that. The rest were fastballs.”
With the infield in, Holder fielded Craig Peters’ grounder, held the runners and got the out at first. Whitten fielded Luke Dransfield’s bouncer, held the runners, and stepped back to tag the bag. When Stolz struck out Zach Milam swinging, the tie remained.
Not for long. Melliff, on a 1-2 pitch from Pete Lannoo, who pitched Terre Haute’s fifth straight complete game in the tournament, “knew he’d bring an off-speed pitch, like a slider. I got it.”
With Lamey batting, Melliff read the defense. “We knew they had the wheel play, where the shortstop covers third base. I thought, ‘Oh yeah’ and tried to beat the shortstop to third.” Lamey’s bunt left Lannoo with only a play at first.
“Knowing they’d run the wheel play, we wanted Jared to take off,” said Simmons, who added, “I like Jared in a footrace with anybody.”
That brought Holder. “Jared’s extremely fast. I knew that if I hit the ball to the outfield, he’d score,” said Holder, who turned 18 on Jan. 2 and thus was eligible by two days to play a fifth American Legion season.
“I tried to lift the ball, and when I hit it I knew it would score Jared. Running down the first base line, I watched the play.”
Terre Haute scored a first-inning run on successive singles by Johnson, Brock and Wolf. The Martin-to-Melliff double play limited the damage to one run. But two errors, Johnson’s single and Brock’s sacrifice, on which Stolz charged from third base to make a barehand pickup and get the batter, put the Princetons in 3-0 arrears.
“I knew I had to lock in,” said Sandefer, to turn 19 next Saturday
“Early-on, I left some balls up. Then I started locating my fastball and keeping the ball down. By the eighth inning, their fourth time through the batting order, they were getting to me.
“I’m always nervous when I come out of a game. But I had confidence in Tyler and all our guys.”
Princeton scored in the fifth as Stolz’ drive hopped the left field fence for a ground-rule double and Wagner delivered an RBI single. Then came a four-run sixth in which Melliff singled and stole second, Lamey walked, Holder hit an RBI single, Matt Harpenau was hit by a 2-2 pitch, and Whitten lined a 1-2 pitch to left field for a two-run single and 4-3 lead. Harpenau moved to third when Stolz was hit by a pitch, and then he scored the inning’s fourth run on a wild pitch.
“They threw me one fastball all day and that was the pitch I hit,” the 17-year-old Whitten said.
“I was sitting on a curve, but I got my front foot down and got my hands through.
“State champion is the greatest feeling in my life. The biggest game I’ve been in in any sport,” said Whitten.
“It feels great, especially with these guys,” said Wagner.
“It feels amazing. I’ve never won a state championship before,” said Melliff.
“The best feeling ever. It’s sweet,” said Martin.
“It’s crazy. Unbelievable,” said Holder.
”It is unbelievable. Crazy. Like I’m dreaming,” said Sandefer.
“First time to win a state championship in anything,” said Stolz, who added. “I wouldn’t want to do it with any other team.”