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June 19, 2014

The final inning: Close-knit Terre Haute North seniors hope long journey winds up with a state title

TERRE HAUTE — Most of them have been close enough to a state baseball championship already to decide that close just isn’t good enough anymore.

But the lessons they learned and the bonds they formed in those previous tournaments are among the reasons why Terre Haute North’s nine seniors are looking forward to Friday night’s Class 4A high school state championship game with excitement and optimism.

Six of them — pitcher Austin Hicks, first baseman Nathan Will, second baseman Jonathan Eilbracht, third baseman Zach Milam and outfielders Lane Dransfield and Nick Long — are expected to be in the starting lineup against Noblesville.

Keaton Booth, Lucas Davis and Austin Massey are good bets to appear sometime as pinch runners unless they are needed in reserve in the infield (Booth), the outfield (Davis and Massey) or on the mound (Booth and Massey).

And all nine will provide leadership and enthusiasm and do whatever is asked of them, because that’s one of the main reasons they’ve come this far.

“It goes without saying that every senior class is important to the success of your program,” coach Shawn Turner said this week, “and these guys have bonded together better than most. They treat each other like well-behaved brothers.”

“We have a lot of team chemistry,” Davis said. “There’s nothing negative toward each other.”

“This senior class is really close,” added Booth. “We usually do something every weekend together, we direct-message and we’re always talking to each other.”

“We pick each other up and we know how to get each other going,” Long said, “and we don’t get on each other’s nerves.”

For seven of the nine, the togetherness goes back to North Little League — or even farther than that.

“Me and Jonny [Eilbracht] have been playing together since we were 4,” Milam said, for example.

Those Little League experiences resulted in some near-misses in all-star competition. Eilbracht revealed this week that he is still steamed about a missed umpire’s call that cost his team a potential state championship win when they were all 10-year-olds — ironically, some of the younger Patriots did win a state title as 12-year-olds the year after these current seniors departed — and Dransfield probably summed up the feelings of many of the senior Patriots when he said, “We’ve been the state runner-up team … now it’s time for a state championship.”

The two who didn’t come through Little League are Will, who played Cal Ripken baseball at Riley, and Booth, who came through the Colt program at Terre Town.

“I’ve known [the other North seniors] since we were 9 or 10. We’d see each other at all-star tournaments, fall leagues or indoor leagues,” said Will, a St. Patrick’s graduate. Not playing with his Riley teammates at Terre Haute South bothered him briefly, Will added, but said this week, “I’d say it’s worked out pretty well.”

Both Will and Booth were welcomed into the fold, they said — “A lot of us were on the same basketball team in middle school,” Booth added — and so, in a sense, was Massey, who didn’t play baseball between his last year of Little League and his junior year at North.

“It’s been a great time getting to know these guys [again],” Massey said this week, “and how well I’ve been accepted after not playing [baseball] for five years. It was pretty cool of them, being able to do that.”

“They’ve all made significant contributions to North High School and to the baseball program,” Turner said. “They’re all good students, they’re all good people and that’s reflected in how they play.”

Now these seniors face their last big high school game together, and are ready to put to use what they learned in the big games in the past.

“We’ve played great competition and that’s helped us get where we are now,” Milam said.

“[Those previous games] taught us we’ve got to be calm. You can’t tense up, because then you don’t play as well,” Dransfield added.

“We learned about the pressure of the game, everybody cheering for you, everybody cheering for the other team,” said Eilbracht. “[Those games] got us in the mindset of not letting the crowd get in your head.”

“Thanks to all the competition we played coming up, and all the competition we played this year … I think we’re prepared for this game,” Hicks noted. “We’ve been thinking about it for awhile and coach Fay [Spetter, the catcher and cleanup hitter on North’s 1974 state champions] said he wanted a 40th anniversary.”

“We’re going to be prepared, and we’re hot,” said Long. “I have a really good feeling [about Friday night].”

“It’s going to be amazing; it’s something we’ve thought about all year,” Milam noted.

“We’ve been fighting for it all year and now it’s time to shine,” Dransfield said.

“I couldn’t pick a better senior year,” said Massey, whose baseball absences were football-related. “It started at Lucas Oil Stadium with a [football] win [over Castle] and hopefully we’ll close it out at Victory Field with a win.”

“I think this will be one of the most exciting baseball weeks of my life,” Will predicted. “It’ll be the last week playing with some of these kids, so I’m enjoying the moment.”

“It’s going to be tough, knowing this game will be my last game,” Davis concluded, “so we’ve got to give it our all and we can’t let down.”

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