By Nick Goralczyk
NAPPANEE – Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, or at least according to Shakespeare. But for the NorthWood baseball team, that crown fits just right.
Every Panther player is holding his head high following an 8-7, walk-off victory over Goshen Wednesday night. The win clinched an outright Northern Lakes Conference championship for NorthWood (11-3 NLC), avoiding a split title with Northridge (10-4).
But folks in Nappanee had reason to believe they would be sharing their conference crown for much of Wednesday’s contest. The Panthers, needing a win or a Northridge loss to clinch the outright title, found themselves trailing 7-4 going into the bottom of the seventh inning. This just minutes after Northridge had secured a 7-4 victory over Plymouth. But it turned out that the Panthers were just looking to flash some late-game heroics.
Jacob Raasch led off the inning by taking one for the team, reaching base after being hit by a pitch. Raasch then stole second and advanced to third on a sac fly from Logan Balasa. Getting the leadoff runner to third with just one out in a three-run contest might not seem like much, but the momentum was shifting for a team that had been making contact at the plate all day.
Wriley Symons came up next and hammered a two-run homer over the left field fence to make it a 7-6 game. It was the first time all game where NorthWood had all the momentum, the tide had shifted and everyone could feel what was coming. The homer even managed to quiet an obnoxious Goshen dugout. The noise from the visitor’s bench was only drowned out most of the game by the uniforms the RedHawks were wearing.
Symons’ shot was followed up by a walk from Beau Stankovich and a single from Nate Newcomer. Karson Kirby, pinch running for Stankovich, became the tying run following a fielder’s choice from Isaiah Yoder. Goshen first baseman Braxton Burns fielded Yoder’s ball but froze when trying to decide to throw home or take the easy out at first. Kirby scored and Yoder reached safely. It was a total meltdown from the RedHawks, NorthWood just needed to seize the moment one last time.
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Sellers, who finished his day going 2-for-4 at the plate with a walk, walked it off with a grounder that Goshen couldn’t handle, scoring Newcomer, and was properly dog-piled in the infield by his fellow conference champion teammates.
Goshen left the field, clearly dejected after leading the entire game up to the final half inning, while the Panthers celebrated and brought their families on the field for a big group photo with the championship trophy. It was quite the send off for a remarkable group of seniors.
“COVID was very fortunate for us, honestly, when you look at it from the standpoint that I was able to keep 12 guys, who are program guys,” NorthWood skipper AJ Risedorph said of his senior class. “They have been unselfish in our dugout. It’s hard to play all of them. That’s the one thing I can say, these 12 are program kids that have been unselfish through and through. They bought into their role, whatever role it is for that day. I could not be more proud of them, honestly. “
The role for Wednesday evening was to rally back. The RedHawks took an early 4-0 lead after the first inning, highlighted by a three-run homer from Colin Turner. Goshen would tack on another run in the second to go up 5-0. The RedHawks had a leadoff walk in each of the first three innings and it was clear that NorthWood starter Gage Gongwer was struggling to settle in. But the junior weathered the storm and would pitch six innings, fanning four Goshen batters along the way.
NorthWood finally got on the board in the third inning with a passed ball and added a second run with an RBI from Balasa. NorthWood made the game interesting at 5-4 with two runs in the fourth. An RBI from Sergio Lira Ayala made it 5-3 while RedHawk fielding error allowed Sellers to score. Goshen added two insurance runs in the top of the seventh before NorthWood’s clutch performance to end the game.
The win puts NorthWood at 17-6 overall as the Panthers will host South Bend St. Joseph on Friday. Goshen falls to 14-12 on the season.