LAGRANGE — Championship games are always pressure situations. The stakes and media presence can make a pitcher’s job even harder than it usually is, and with not one but two college scouts watching NorthWood starter Matt Dutkowski work on the mound Monday in addition to the usual noise of a sectional championship, there were lots of reasons for the Panther junior to feel the glare of the spotlight. But if it ever bothered him, he never showed it.
Dutkowski stayed cool under a blistering hot mid-day sun, striking out seven and walking none while pitching a four-hit shutout, and the eighth-ranked Panthers’ order delivered nine hits and took advantage of pretty much everything the defense gave them on the way to a five-inning, 10-0 championship victory over the host Lakers at the Lakeland Sectional.
“Obviously going into it, it’s a lot of pressure because it’s a sectional championship. It’s always going to be pressure any championship game,” said Dutkowski. “We had one earlier with Goshen. You go into it, and on the bus you’re trying to get in your mindset that it’s just a game. You don’t have to put too much pressure on yourself. You just go out there and throw strikes and just do what you do best.”
What Dutkowski did best Monday was work ahead in counts.
The NorthWood right-hander was just plain efficient against the Lakeland lineup, needing only 73 pitches to work through five shutout innings and allowing just two runners to reach base prior to the fifth. Nearly out of chances and in their third time through the order, the Lakers used a pair of singles by Miles Mast and Nolan Isaacs and an error on a bad hop to third — NorthWood’s only error of the day — to load the bags with two out in that fifth inning. But Dutkowski bore down to catch Kole Lounsbury looking for the final out, Brant Mast stayed hot driving in two runs for the walk-off in the bottom half of the inning, and the Panthers (22-4) celebrated their sixth straight sectional title.
“It’s exciting. These kids have worked extremely hard for this,” said NorthWood coach A.J. Risedorph. “I know coming in, it wasn’t something that they necessarily expected. I think it’s something that they’ve worked toward, and it’s become a standard in our program. They’ve worked their tails off for this. Definitely deserved by this group of guys right here.”
“I think that winning any championship, no matter who you play and no matter how many times you’ve done it, a championship is special. I think everyone on the team knows that,” Dutkowski said. “The seniors went out with four straight. That’s an accomplishment that not many people in Indiana can say, especially with baseball because anything can happen to you in baseball. So winning four sectionals in a year as a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, that’s just impressive.”
It was one of those seniors, Mast, who gave his team its biggest assist at the plate Monday.
The second baseman and number two hitter in the Panthers lineup reached base in three of four plate appearances on his way to 2-of-4 hitting, and he drove in five runs and scored another two with a pair of big hits in the fourth and fifth.
Mast’s first hit of the night came on a 1-1 offering by Lakeland starter Hunter Frost in the fourth as he took Frost deep to left for a three-run shot that pushed NorthWood out to an 8-0 cushion and chased the Lakers junior after 3 1/3 innings.
“I knew he wasn’t throwing a lot of curveballs because he couldn’t really hit the zone with them early so I went up looking for a fastball,” explained Mast of the dinger in the fourth. “I think he left it up a little — probably a mistake — and when it hit the bat, it felt really good. I didn’t really feel it, and I thought it was gone off the bat.”
Mast came up big for his team again in the next inning, as an error in left on a fly ball by Alec Holcomb, a single by Jaden Miller and a walk from Lakeland reliever A.J. Poe to Sawyer Warren juiced the bags for Mast, who promptly pulled his first look at Poe down the leftfield line to drive in two and finish off the runs-ahead-rule win.
“I knew going in they were going to have to throw to me because the bases were loaded. They had nowhere to put me so I was looking for that first pitch right there. I just waited back and drove it,” said Mast.
“I don’t think anything really phases him, whether it’s curveballs or fastball locations,” said Risedorph of Mast. “A lot of that comes with experience; he’s had varsity time since his freshman year. So he’s seen a lot, and he’s competed at a high level.”
It was small ball and a few mistakes by the Lakeland defense that put NorthWood on the board in the third.
Holcomb and Miller drew back-to-back walks to start the frame, and Warren laid down a sacrifice bunt that allowed Holcomb to score when Frost overthrew to first. Miller scored on a wild pitch, Mast put a sharp chopper in play to short that was bobbled and later reached third when Frost misthrew a pickoff attempt to first to catch him leading off. Two outs later, and Hunter Warren’s grounder to second was dropped, allowing Mast to cross the plate, staking the Panthers to a 4-0 lead.
“Same baseball we’ve been playing all year. We want to put pressure on them. Things that we were able to take advantage of were some of the defensive mistakes on their end, which, that happens. It’s one of the reasons that you see small ball at this level,” said Risedorph.
“Against a quality club like Lakeland — really all the teams that we’ve seen in this sectional — we’ve got to be able to play small ball and get that first run across early. We took advantage of that.”
“Any way on. I think our team is good at doing that,” Dutkowski said. “If you have to bunt, if you have to hit behind the runner, it’s not all about you. I think everyone on the team knows that there’s a bigger purpose than your stats.”
Monday’s championship represented NorthWood’s sixth straight such title and its seventh in eight straight sectional championship game appearances. It was pretty much a repeat of last year’s sectional title win over Lakeland (22-6), which the Panthers took by a 14-0 margin. But while it was the sixth in a row for the program, it was Risedorph’s first at the helm of the program after taking over for Jay Sheets in the offseason.
“I was never really worried about the pressure, the outside noise of what has come to be expected of our program. I think it has just been our mentality of taking it game by game and pitch by pitch that has gotten us to this point,” Risedorph said. “Now we’re fortunate enough to go play in a regional tournament, two games against another quality opponent. It doesn’t get easier from this point.
“I’m not surprised that our guys work hard and that they rally around each other. It’s something that they’ve been doing all year.”
“After last year, losing all the seniors we did, we had to have young kids step up in big situations. I think early in the year we had our struggles, but we worked through it at practice and I think it showed today,” said Mast. “I couldn’t be more excited for them.”
NorthWood now advances to defend its regional championship at Belmont Saturday opposite Jay County at 1 p.m., in the second semifinal following the opener between Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran and Yorktown. The championship is scheduled for 8 p.m.