LAGRANGE – It was the start that Tippecanoe Valley wanted. It was the response NorthWood needed.
Valley plated an early run on NorthWood, setting off a wake-up call the Panthers answered Saturday morning. Wood would come back to score the game’s final six runs in a 6-1 result in the first semi-final of the Class 3-A Lakeland Baseball Sectional.
The alarms were sounding, whether it was for Valley in upset mode, or for the NorthWood contingent shocked and alarmed. With ace Alec Holcomb on the hill, Valley got a single from Lucas Walters in the first, but made their primary noise in the second. Adam Myers got a walk to open the second, and moved to third on Wes Melanson’s double. Ethan Yates fought off a few pitches before taking an inside-out swing to right, driving in Myers. Melanson, however, was picked off at third after taking a wide turn on the relay throw.
That out was key, as Valley would have had runners on the corners with one out. Holcomb used the defensive gift to get a groundout on the next batter to end the threat.
“I kind of thought this is the way it goes,” said Tippecanoe Valley head coach Greg Prater. “We’ve had a lot of games this year that we have played this way. We played Wabash where it was 0-0 going into the fifth and that one bad inning happened to us and we lost 7-2. We truly thought we could have won this game. We had some baserunning errors, I think three were thrown out at third base. Just bad baserunning. Hopefully we can build from that, our younger guys see that happen and see how important it is in a baseball game to run the bases properly.”
NorthWood, as they have done so many times this season, responded from its defense to its offense. Hunter Warren led off the inning wearing a Myers pitch, later scoring on a wild pitch. Kyler Hauptli singled and scored in the inning, coming home on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Holcomb. At 2-1, the comfort level was coming back for the defending sectional champs.
The familiarity of NorthWood in a rally also saw Jaden Miller pull another couple of rabbits out of his back pocket. The sophomore right fielder made a diving catch to rob Tucker Shull of extra bases, then started a big inning for the Panthers in the fifth. After Holcomb was hit by a pitch for the second time to open the bottom of the frame, Miller rapped a tiring Myers’ offering deep to the fence to bring Holcomb in for a 3-1 lead. Sawyer Warren then doubled Miller home and a wild pitch later scored Warren. At 5-1, the game had completely swung in the Panthers’ favor.
“He is very steady,” NorthWood head coach AJ Risedorph said of Miller. “It doesn’t seem like a whole lot gets to him. He has multiple approaches at the plate. He is looking for a ball in his area, and if he finds it in his spot, he is swinging big.
“For a sophomore, a lot of maturity. He made the one play where he wasn’t sure if he needed to dive or not, coming in, that would have been a hit. That limits pitches, obviously. It’s the little things for us.”
Holcomb would settle in after the shaky start to finish six innings. He would not allow a hit after the second inning, giving up just three total and striking out seven. Myers looked good early, but couldn’t keep up the pace and lasted four-plus innings, giving up seven hits, four earned runs and fanning six.
“I told the guys we had to do all of the little things correct,” said Prater, whose club finishes up the season 7-16 overall. “We didn’t have many errors in the game, but that kept us in the ballgame. NorthWood is a .400 hitting club, they hit the ball and you can’t do nothing about that when they are bouncing it off the fence.”
NorthWood (21-4) will move to the sectional finals for the eighth straight year, looking for its sixth straight title. Taking on the Panthers will be Lakeland (22-5), which defeated Fairfield 2-1 in the day’s second game. Drew Grossman tossed a complete game for the Lakers, allowing just three hits and striking out 10. Fairfield closes 15-12 on the year. The championship game, a rematch of the 2017 final, is set for 11 a.m. Monday.
“The NLC prepares us for this, honestly,” Risedorph said, whose team split the NLC title with Plymouth this year. “Monday, Wednesday, Friday there’s no games off in that conference. So, looking at these guys, they each prepared for a game Thursday and won. In championship games, anything can happen. We just have to take it one game at a time and one pitch at a time.”