SYRACUSE – Call it poetic. Call it ironic. Call it clutch. Whatever the case, Angola left Wawasee High School called ‘champions’ Monday after rallying past NorthWood, 4-2, in the Class 3-A Wawasee Baseball Sectional.
Angola had toed the line, danced in the fire, played hyperbole all week in the sectional tourney. After narrowly escaping Lakeland, 2-1, in the sectional opener last Wednesday, the Hornets used a suicide squeeze to walk off against Wawasee, 9-8, on Saturday. Needing a flat-out miracle Monday afternoon, the Hornets went to the well in the same manner it did to reach the finals.
Angola had managed just one measly hit against NorthWood ace Alec Holcomb through six innings, Holcomb perfect through 4.2 innings and flat dealing through six. But that changed in the seventh as Chase Soulliere singled to open the seventh, setting up a similar pattern to the Wawasee game. After Holcomb got Kaleb Farnham to pop out, NorthWood was faced with a decision to pitch to Aaron Chao, who was hitting .485 coming into the game but was 0-2 with a pair of quiet groundouts against Holcomb.
NorthWood went after Chao, and like Saturday, Chao found a pitch he liked and crushed it to the fence in center, bringing in Soulliere on a double to cut the lead in half. The next play was huge as Ryan Brandt put down a sacrifice bunt, but the throw was off line, allowing everyone to be safe. Brandt moved up to second on defensive indifference, and David Frank grounded to short, but Nate Newcomer’s throw home was late, and Angola had tied the score.
In a replay of Angola’s game winner against Wawasee, Brandt found himself charging down the line on a squeeze play, and this time it was Owen Shoup who laid down the successful bunt to score Brandt uncontested for a 3-2 lead. Frank would eventually score on a wild pitch for some insurance, but the shocking turnaround had completely shifted everyone’s plans for regional weekend.
“We work a lot on bunting,” said Angola head coach Roger Roddy. “When I looked at the championship scores the past few years, they are almost always one-run games. If you are going to win those, there’s likely some bunt game involved in that. It can be frustrating to watch sometimes because it’s not sexy like hitting home runs or whatever, but when you get into a situation like a squeeze bunt, every kid in this lineup can lay one down. And that’s how we’re standing here now.”
Added NorthWood head coach AJ Risedorph on the decision to pitch the Chao, “We knew Chao could hit coming in, and with Holcomb on the mound in that situation, he was able to beat him after getting him the first two at-bats. He felt confident. Regardless of how good that kid is, I didn’t want to necessarily give the tying run on base with no outs in that situation. That was a great swing on probably a pitch that was a little off-speed over the plate in that situation. That comes with it.”
Chao, who led the state in pitching strikeouts coming into the game with 116, added 12 more to his total, and got the final two outs in that fashion. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Eastern Illinois recruit, however, as his own fielding woes hurt is cause early.
A walk to Jack Wysong to open the game, followed by a bunt by Kyler Hauptli that Chao fielded and threw into right field had runners on the corners. Matt Dutkowski launched a sacrifice fly to bring in Wysong, and Wood was on the board. In the midst of that was an injury to Hautpli, who had his hand stepped on by Frank, forcing the senior third baseman to exit the game. Hauptli would not return.
In the bottom of the fifth, Chao’s inability to field a bunt allowed NorthWood to get runners moving again. After Holcomb reached on a single, Josh Stratford laid down a bunt to Chao, who again tossed the ball into the outfield, and Holcomb came all the way around to score on the play. NorthWood, however, left Stratford in scoring position.
Chao only allowed three hits in the game and walked just one in what settled in as a premier pitcher’s duel. The two unearned runs didn’t hurt his ERA, which drops to a minuscule 0.46.
Holcomb wound up allowing just three hits, surrendering just the one hit until the seventh. Holcomb, who is ticketed to continue playing at Taylor University next year, walked none and struck out eight in his final game in the black and red.
“We stepped into this year, every game, we wanted to treat it like a championship game,” Risedorph said. “With that mentality, we played 20-some championship games. We won some, we lost some. Within our conference, we saw games like this very familiar to us in situations where it was going to be very close. I think our guys going into next year are going to be very seasoned.”
NorthWood (17-8) was seeking its seventh straight sectional title and eighth in nine years. Angola (15-12) wins its first title since 2013 and fifth overall. The Hornets will head to Garrett this Saturday to face Jay County (18-5), an 8-0 winner over Marion at the Bellmont Sectional. New Haven (17-12) and Yorktown (16-14) will play in the other semi-final at Garrett.
“I think some people might have taken us lightly because of our win-loss record, but when Aaron Chao is on the mound, we’re pretty good,” Roddy said. “But, we can swing the bat a little bit, too. I certainly think our program deserves to be here, and I think we’ll get the respect we deserve for beating three quality teams this week. I think the boys are pretty happy to be champions today.”