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June 18, 2011

Class A baseball: North Central rally comes up short in title game

INDIANAPOLIS — Intimidated not at all by unfamiliar surroundings and an opponent quite used to those surroundings, North Central’s Thunderbirds battled Lafayette Central Catholic to the last pitch of the Class A high school baseball state championship game Friday night at Victory Field.

But the T-Birds made one mistake and got one bad break, and that was enough to give the Knights their fifth title by a 3-2 score.

“I can’t put it in words. It almost brings me to tears,” coach Craig Grow said after the game when asked how proud he was of his still-young team. “[Central Catholic is] a great program, a [five]-time state champion, and we were there. These kids have fought hard the whole season.”

“I’m unhappy we lost,” said second baseman Nate Lyday, “but I’m still excited we got second. We got to the last possible game, we just came up one run short.”

“I’m a little sad, because we made a couple mistakes that cost us the game,” said pitcher Connor Strain. “But in baseball you make mistakes. I’m proud of the way we fought back.”

Strain allowed just five hits and one earned run, and gave his chance to beat a team that was averaging nearly 11 runs per game in postseason play.

“I just wanted to throw two-seam [fastballs] inside and not let [the Knights] get their hands extended,” he explained after the game. “It didn’t always work … I missed some spots.”

The Knights actually hit only about three balls hard off Strain all night, and one of them was not the triple by catcher Devin Morgan that set up the first run in the bottom of the second inning.

Morgan was fooled by a pitch on the outer half of the plate but slapped it down the right-field line, just inside the bag at first base. It rolled all the way into the corner and he had the first triple of his senior season, scoring four pitches later on a sacrifice fly by Cody Schrader.

“It’s a lot bigger park, and our kid [in right field] hustled his butt off,” Grow said of that play. “After that [the Knights] get the sacrifice fly.”

LCC got two more runs in the bottom of the third, both unearned. A one-out error put Jake Churchill on base and Austin Munn launched an opposite-field drive to the deepest part of the park in left-center. That was good for an RBI triple, and another sacrifice fly by the Knights made it 3-0.

It looked like it would stay that way for quite awhile, as Central Catholic’s Brett Haan took a two-hit shutout into the sixth. But then the Thunderbirds mounted their comeback.

Nate Lyday led off with a single between first and second, and Connor Strain followed with a topped roller down the third-base line. Three LCC defenders watched, hoping the ball would roll foul — but as they watched, Lyday raced all the way to third.

“I thought about [taking the extra base] for awhile,” Lyday said after the game. “They were sitting there fighting with each other [about picking up the ball] … it was a big gamble, but it had to happen there for us.”

“That was heads-up,” Grow said, “but our North Central fans are used to that. Give these kids a little room and they’ll take the extra base … they are very smart baserunners.”

Cole Johnson followed with a slowly hit grounder to the middle of the infield. Lyday broke from third after the throw to first and nearly got thrown out at the plate, but the throw didn’t allow Morgan to get to where he could keep Lyday off the front corner of the plate … and during that throw, Strain also took third, from where he scored on a grounder by Craig Bell.

Johnson and Bell were the first two of the six in a row retired by Haan to end the game, however, and the Knights held on. Morgan, who got two hits and limped the rest of the game after his collision with Nate Lyday, won the Class A Mental Attitude Award.

“Those other two runs were unearned,” Grow said afterward. “That’s not to take anything away from [Lafayette Central Catholic], and not to take anything away from our kids either. I’m not blaming anybody. Our kids did a great, great job — it’s just the breaks of the game sometimes.”

“I’m still upset we lost,” said Johnson after the game, “but we gave [the Knights] an extremely good game. They knew they were in a fight from the beginning. We had a chance at the end, and that’s all we could ask for.”

“I feel like I had a really good senior year,” said Bell, the transfer from Northview and the Thunderbirds’ only senior in 2011. “I’m a little disappointed we couldn’t get the win today.”

Because Bell is the only North Central senior, however, a return to Victory Field wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for the Thunderbirds — although they’d probably have to play on Saturday afternoon in 2012 because they’ll be a Class 2A team then.

“I think they could,” Bell said. “If they come out in the winter time and bust their butts, they could get back here.”

“We’re going to miss Craig. It will really hurt losing him,” Connor Strain pointed out. “But we’re going to come back this summer and work on making it back next year.”

“It will be tough in 2A,” Nate Lyday predicted, “but I still think we’ll be one of the best teams.”

“It will be a little different, looking forward,” said Johnson, who started to smile. “But last year we lost in the semistate and this year we lost in the final game.

“Logically, you know what comes next.”

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