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Norse walk-off to win regional title

CELEBRATION: Northfield head coach Clint Davis (foreground) is doused in water by, from left, Blake Harner, Jared Vigar, Jarret Shafer and Cole Rosen, after the Norse's regional title win on Saturday.

BY JACOB RUDE - sports@wabashplaindealer.com

ROCHESTER – Northfield baseball head coach Clint Davis preached all season long that, with solid pitching and timely hitting, the Norse would be a tough team to beat.

At Saturday’s regional, the pitching could hardly have been better and the hits could hardly have been timelier.

In the opener, the Norse saw Blake Harner put forth his second spectacular effort of the postseason, tossing eight innings of scoreless ball with 13 strikeouts and two walks, helping the Norse stay in the contest into extra innings before a pair of runs in the top of the ninth proved the decider in a 2-0 win over South Central.

Hours later in the nightcap, the finish was even more dramatic as Clayton Tomlinson’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the seventh allowed pinch runner Jarret Shafer to tag up from third and score the winning run, giving Northfield the regional title with a 3-2 win over Fremont.

“It’s hard to formulate sentences right now,” Davis said. “The good thing, and I talked about it after game one and I meant it and it’s the same thing after game two, I don’t think we win either one of these games a month ago. And that’s just kudos to our group. They’ve been staying positive. We popped up, we had crap at-bats at times both games, but we battled through, battled through, battled through and we got great pitching both games.”

Prior to the last-inning dramatics, Northfield had to escape a game-changing jam in the top of the seventh.

Prior to the late-game dramatics from Northfield, Fremont concocted some of its own magic. Trailing 2-0 heading into the top of the sixth, the Eagles reached on an error to leadoff the frame before an RBI single from Evan Trusty into left to follow halved the deficit to 2-1.

A sacrifice bunt moved the tying run to scoring position before a single put the go-ahead run on first. Drancik would help his own cause by picking off Trusty at second, giving Northfield two outs in the inning.

After a full-count hit-by-pitch, Drancik made way for Jonah Truman on the mound. The sophomore needed just two pitches to get out of the jam, getting Joe Molter to fly out to center field to end the threat.

The worst was yet to come for Northfield, though. After seeing just six pitches in the bottom of the sixth, the Norse headed back onto the field needing three outs to secure the first regional title since 2013.

Truman would strike out the lead batter, but Kameron Colclasure would lace a double into the gap in right-center. Ethan Marten would tie the game four pitches later with a single into left.

Rhett Evans followed with an infield single before Trusty would ground out into a fielder’s choice at third for the second out of the inning.

Truman, though, would load the bases after hitting Connor Kreis on a 3-1 count. With the game on the line, Truman responded by striking out Christian Bice on four pitches to escape the inning tied.

“It’s tough, Nate left with a lead, it’s tough to hang on to those things in those situations. Jonah came in, battled, got out of a big jam,” Davis said. “We were a base hit away for them from being down and having to really worry about things. Kudos to the kids.”

The bottom of the seventh started with a single down the left field line from Braden Ripplinger. Trevor Burnworth would lay down a sacrifice bunt, but the ball would be mishandled by the catcher Molter, allowing base runners to reach safely and putting the winning run on second base.

Northfield would bring in Shafer to pinch run for Ripplinger at second and he would immediately be put into action as the first pitch of the at-bat against Cole Rosen sailed over the catcher’s glove and to the backstop, moving both runners up a base and into scoring position.

The Eagles would opt to walk Rosen to create a force out at any base, but it would not matter. Tomlinson would lift a fly ball into shallow right field, allowing Shafer to tag up and slide into home safely after Molter dropped the ball, sending the Norse home winners 3-2.

“Boy, we aren’t real good at the plate right now and we have a lot to work on,” Davis said. “It’s tough. You go from seeing (South Newton’s Jay) Hammel and the first kid we saw (South Central’s Kyle Schmack) was pretty stinking good. He’s a Division I kid.

“Then we get a little thumber left-hander (in Fremont’s Mick Laisure) and that’s just how the tournament is. You can’t prepare from one game to the next at the plate. We don’t have any practice time to work on lefty soft-tossers. And we didn’t make very good adjustments at times, but the kids just grinded. They’ve been grinding for the last month and I can’t say enough about it.”

The regional title win was only made possible after a nearly perfect game from Harner in the opener. One game removed from a complete-game, 13-strikeout win in the sectional final against South Newton, Harner one-upped his performance.

The senior tossed eight innings of scoreless baseball, allowing just four hits while walking two and striking out 13 before hitting the 120-pitch limit.

Appropriately, the final pitch of the day for Harner was a strike as he struck out the side in the bottom of the eighth inning to give a quiet Northfield offense yet another chance.

Northfield finally took advantage of its opportunities in the top of the ninth. In a game in which the Norse stranded 11 baserunners, the key hits would finally come in the extra frame. Rosen would leadoff with a bunt single before moving to second on a throwing error on the play.

Tomlinson would move the senior to third with a sacrifice bunt before Hartman would bring him in with his own bunt single.

Harner helped his own cause on the first pitch of his at-bat, tripling into the right-field corner to bring Hartman in and giving Northfield a 2-0 lead.

Looking for the save and a chance to play in the regional final, Drancik would give up a single and hit a batter to lead off the bottom of the ninth but saw the next two Eagle batters fail to lay down a bunt with two strikes.

Drancik would finish off the game in style, striking out Kyle Sample to end the game and secure the win.

“Blake threw his heart out, threw 120 pitches and Drancik came in and closed the door and that was a big thing,” Davis said. “I think lost in all this is Nate’s (inning) after the performance by Blake just to get us to this point. Then to keep us in the game for six innings. What a great, great, great job by both of those men on the mound. We’ve got some work to do on the plate but we’re going to get back at it. These guys don’t want to be done and neither do I.”

Despite the multi-hour wait in-between games, Northfield carried the momentum straight into the second game of the day.

After a harmless top of the first, Tomlinson led off the bottom of the first with a walk. After a flyout from Hartman, Harner would reach on an error to put runners on the corners with one out.

Matt Coe’s sacrifice fly into center brought Tomlinson in for the first run of the night and move Harner to second. Three pitches later, Harner would steal third before seeing the throw from the catcher fly into left field, allowing the Norse to double its lead to 2-0.

Drancik allowed just one hit on the day, the single in the sixth, but walked five and danced around trouble much of the day. The senior would leave the bases loaded in the top of the third after inducing a pop out to right field from Trusty.

One inning later, Drancik stranded a runner in scoring position after a one-out walk before retiring the Eagles in order in the fifth, setting up the dramatic final two innings.

“We’ve got some good attitudes and I think they’re really enjoying being around each other,” Davis said. “At times this year, I’m not sure that was the case. But this group got a little tighter each time. They’re picking each other up.

“Our seniors, that’s the huge thing, when you get to this point, they’re graduated, they’re doing nothing but baseball now and sometimes they look into the future before they take care of the present. They’ve stayed in the present, they’ve stayed in the moment. They’re not ready to take off the Norse jersey and that’s huge for us.”