SYRACUSE — NorthWood baseball kept not one but two impressive streaks alive with the Panthers’ 14-0 Sectional 21 championship victory over Lakeland Monday. And they made it look easy to boot.
The first was a string of five straight sectional titles, and the second was a 24-game win streak. The latter isn’t something head coach Jay Sheets really talks about with his players. As far as the former goes, the Panthers understand the expectations.
NorthWood jumped on top with seven two-out runs in the top of the first, senior starter Drake Gongwer pitched a near no-hitter, and the red and black rolled to its fifth consecutive title — and sixth in the past seven years — opposite the Lakers in a sectional finale that was moved to Wawasee on Memorial Day.
“I always tell our guys — and I say this very humbly — I think that we are the favorite in this sectional, and if someone is going to beat us they’d better beat us with their best,” Sheets said. “We can never afford to give it away. That’s the mentality that they have. They are very even-keeled, and they deserve it. Every year we come here, and every year we play it’s always a goal to wrap that up.”
The Panthers got rolling during a two-out rally in the top of the first.
Sophomore Matt Dutkowski sparked his team with a double down the right field line — the start of a 3-for-3 outing that included two two-baggers Monday — while Jaron Mullet drove in Sawyer Warren and Vincent Hershberger after both drew walks when his fly to right was misjudged by Lakeland junior Miles Mast, and Hunter Warren, Payton Bear and Travis Stephenson cranked out back-to-back-to-back, run-scoring singles.
Those seven runs in the top of the first proved to be more run support than Gongwer would ever need.
The senior right-hander walked a pair of batters in the bottom half of the first but got a 6-4-3 double play from his defense and quickly settled into a no-hit bid that lasted into the fifth. Isaiah Lehman spoiled the no-hitter leading off the final frame with a looping single into shallow center. Hunter Frost looped a second consecutive single into right, and both advanced to scoring position when the ball was misplayed in right.
Gongwer finished the outing with eight strikeouts while giving up three walks and two hits for the win.
“It’s a lot of fun just playing with the guys. We all get along really well, have a lot of fun playing together,” said Gongwer.
“He’s got the stuff that he can do that every game if he really wanted to. He wasn’t on on, but he could locate enough to get the job done,” said Sheets of Gongwer. “I think he was just getting a little winded there at the end, and they put the ball in play in that last inning. But I couldn’t be more proud of him and how much he’s grown individually.”
Sheets moved Hershberger over from third after the error in right, and Hershberger and the Panther defense slammed the door shut.
Kyler Bowers laid down a bunt with Lehman on third, but Hershberger hit Dutkowski for the automatic out, and Dutkowski gunned down Lehman as he attempted to score for NorthWood’s second double play of the day. Dylan Dunn singled into the gap at short to move Frost over to third, but Hershberger fanned Kaleb Wadsorth as the top of the Lakeland order came back around to close out the title win.
“I was a little surprised that they were trying to do a bunt that late in the game, but it’s one of those things where we practice PFPs and things like that everyday in practice and bunt defenses,” said Sheets of the 1-3-2 double play.
“That kind of ended any hope of them scoring a run. It’s all about fundamentals, and we try and always take care of that.”
While the Panthers were sound on the mound and on defense, NorthWood got production throughout the lineup with 13 total hits, six of them doubles. The visitors on the scoreboard scored in all but one inning, finishing off the runs-ahead rule win with five runs in the top of the fourth.
With a fifth-straight sectional championship in hand, the Panthers now advance to the Bellmont Regional to play either Fort Wayne Concordia or Dwenger Saturday at 1 p.m. NorthWood has come up empty-handed in its past several regional appearances and are hoping to take the next step this year.
“We’ve lost the last couple times at regionals, and it’s been really tough. We’re really hoping to break that curse this year,” Gongwer said.
“I hope that this run doesn’t stop anytime soon. I hope that we’re playing for another three weeks or whatever it is, but these guys have confidence,” Sheets said.
“We’ll have a great week of practice leading up to Saturday, and we’ll be ready to go.”