By Mike Deak
SYRACUSE – Wawasee’s dugout started noticing early on in Monday’s baseball sectional championship that things on the field just looked different.
For a Wawasee team that needed a reason, it got plenty.
And after winning a Class 3-A Wawasee Baseball Sectional for the first time since 1997, Wawasee’s 3-2 victory over NorthWood was full of making good on observation.
The game itself was full of ‘non-NorthWood things’, plays or situations NorthWood typically hasn’t found itself doing in winning seven of the past nine sectional championships. The Panthers made three physical errors, a crucial one off the bat of Adam Beer with two outs in the third that popped out of Wriley Symons’ glove, allowing Wawasee to score a run and take a 2-0 lead. The next batter, Kam Salazar, then cracked a solid single to center, allowing the Warriors to take a 3-0 lead.
Wawasee scored its first run in the first inning after Lucas Ringler doubled then came around to score on a Parker Young double. The throw home was cut off at the pitcher’s mound, the relay late as Ringler slid under the tag.
NorthWood would load the bases in the first and third, and only get one run out of the two opportunities. In the third, Wood loaded the bags after Sergio Lira Ayala doubled in Kyle Sellers, looking to do further damage. But what looked to be a very prosperous inning for the Panthers turned into utter disaster.
Ayala, who advanced to third on the throw trying to peg Sellers, took off on a full sprint during Grant Brooks’ windup a couple pitches later. Brooks’ pitch went right to catcher Parker Young, who Saturday against Jimtown made the play of the day for the Warriors in a tagout on a steal of home, this time easily tagging out Ayala at home.
“No comment,” quickly ushered NorthWood head coach AJ Risedorph on the structure of the play.
Added Wawasee catcher Parker Young of being in the moment at home yet again, “It’s easier to handle good pitches and Grant threw a perfect pitch right down the middle for me to go make a play. That one was easy.”
NorthWood still had its chances in the inning after Jacob Raasch and Symons both singled and Logan Balasa was hit by a pitch. Either a missed call or poor execution saw Beau Stankovich pop up a bases loaded bunt to Brooks, who turned and fired to second to pick off Balasa and squarely reverse momentum.
“That was about as huge of a play as you could have in that moment,” said Wawasee head coach Brent Doty of the bunt double play.
Lira Ayala was directly involved in NorthWood’s second run. After drawing an intentional walk in the top of the fourth, Brooks balked keeping tabs on Ayala, which allowed Nate Rulli to score from third.
The score remained 3-2 into the top of the seventh. Brooks struck out Kyle Sellers, then a bit of observational history came into play. With Lira Ayala coming to the plate as the tying run, Doty wasn’t about to let another Indiana All-Star beat him two tournaments in a row. Pitching to Angola’s Aaron Chao late in the 2019 sectional semi-final turned into a costly move as Chao crushed a homer in Angola’s rally past the Warriors.
Lira Ayala, the Indiana All-Star who reached base four times in the game, was given his second free pass. He would find himself stranded on first, however, as Brooks struck out Raasch and Balasa to end the game, sending the Warriors into a wild celebration it hasn’t seen since the Clinton administration.
“If I’m being honest, I didn’t necessarily want to,” Doty said in calling for the walk of Lira Ayala. “I wanted Grant to go after him and get Serge. The guys said think back to Angola two years ago and I said yep, you’re right.
“So they kinda talked me into it, which is a testament to them, too, they are always talking about the game. It was a difficult decision, you don’t want to put the tying run on. But you still have the bottom of the seventh if you need it to score and take the lead.”
Risedorph, unprompted to Doty’s thoughts on walking Lira Ayala, also brought up Chao in his own assessment of the walk.
“I looked at Doty and said, ‘Aaron Chao?’ We’ve both been there in that situation. You get one of the better hitters in our area up there, you don’t want to take any risks like a double or anything like that. I knew exactly what he was doing. It was the right call. We both would have had done that the next time through.”
The championship for Wawasee erases 24 years of sectional frustration, the seventh trophy for the team case in the hallway. The Warriors had Brooks work out of jam after jam, striking out nine total Panthers in the contest. He also added a single and double at the plate.
Gage Gongwer wasn’t overpowering in his complete game for the Panthers (19-7), but struck out 10 and walked just one, just one of the three runs on his record were earned. NorthWood sends off 12 seniors after the loss.
Wawasee (18-12) moves to the Bellmont Regional where it will take on Norwell (18-9) in the second game this Saturday, approximately 1 p.m. Hamilton Heights (19-9) and Leo (28-3) play in the day’s first game.