The last high school baseball team standing in the Wabash Valley was the North Central, the Thunderbirds falling short 4-3 in the Class A Semistate on Saturday just one game shy of Victory Field.
While the T-Birds may have seemed to come out of nowhere, the program has been steady in recent years, finishing 13-6 in 2009 and nearly knocking off perennial Class A power Shakamak in the sectional behind a strong senior class.
Coach Darin Simpson faced what figured to be a rebuilding year, but a roster littered with sophomores bounced back after a 1-5 start to build up steam heading into the postseason.
Of his nine starters in the field, Simpson’s team also included two sets of brothers that made up five of the nine positions.
Sophomore second baseman and leadoff man Nate Lyday is joined by twin brother and center fielder Zach Lyday and junior brother Matt Lyday, the Thunderbirds’ first baseman. Ace pitcher Connor Strain is also joined by his twin brother — yes there’s two sets of identical twins — Tyler Strain in left field.
“It’s definitely fun to have two brothers that you can still yell at but know they’re still going to come through with the plays,” Nate Lyday said. “We’ve played a lot of ball together in years past.”
Simpson’s looking forward to having the two sets of brothers around for two more seasons — not just for their quality play on the diamond.
“It’s always funny that they’re on each other’s case all the time about making a play or getting a hit,” Simpson said.
The Lydays actually began their baseball careers in Jasonville before moving to Farmersburg, where Nate and Zach played their final year of Little League.
The win against Shakamak was a sweet one for the North Central program, but perhaps even sweeter for the Lydays, who watched the Thunderbirds come excruciatingly close to knocking off the Lakers the last two years in the sectional championship.
As a freshman, Nate Lyday recalled watching the 2009 game in which the Thunderbirds loaded the bases when behind 5-4 in the seventh inning. But Shakamak’s ace pitcher T.J. Hill struck out two T-Birds to end the threat.
“We’d love to beat those guys,” Nate Lyday remembered thinking last year. “We needed to beat those seniors to prove ourselves as baseball players.”
After North Central won a first-round regional game, Shakamak’s Hill was one of the first to congratulate Simpson. While it’s developed into a
“He wished us well in the semistate,” Simpson said. “He noted that they played Tecumseh on the way to their state final, and they’ve had pretty good luck with them. I really like that group of [Shakamak] kids.”
Simpson, who said he always thought he’d be coaching high school basketball and not baseball, hopes he can maintain his winning ways in the future.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me the secret to our success,” Simpson said. “I think that the most important thing is to have fun. The wins are nice. I told them that the very first year. Just keep it simple.”
The T-Birds’ success was no accident. They finished the season strong to get to a 16-12 record overall. In the postseason, North Central did the little things that it takes to win close baseball games, getting down key sacrifice bunts and making aggressive plays on the bases.
North Central had some hitters too. The Lydays all batted over .300 led by Nate’s .340 average, and senior shortstop A.J. Boyll batted .538 going into the semistate. Boyll will play for South Carolina-Beaufort, an NAIA program.
Nate Lyday expects his team to be back strong the next two years with the strong core of players, and Simpson, leading the way.
“He’s definitely been a coach for inspiration,” Nate said. “He doesn’t dog players or yell. He knows you’ll get the next out. Just keep playing with your heads up.
“We should be pretty tough. We should have two more good years, maybe get to state, maybe even win state,” he added.
Craig Pearson can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (812) 231-4356. Check out his Web log at blogs.tribstar.com/craigpearson.