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June 21, 2014

Just a little short: TH North strands 10 runners while losing in Class 4A state title game

INDIANAPOLIS — Pitching depth came into more play than one might have expected Friday night in the Indiana Class 4A baseball state championship game, and that’s what Noblesville had in abundance.

Getting shaky but ultimately effective relief pitching from two left-handers, the Millers held off Terre Haute North 2-1 in a gripping season finale.

After the game, North coach Shawn Turner confirmed that the 4A title game was his last as North’s coach. Turner will become an assistant coach at McCutcheon High School in Tippecanoe County. See Tribstar.com and Sunday’s Tribune-Star for more on Turner’s departure.

As for the game, the Patriots were “devastated,” as losing pitcher Austin Hicks said afterward, because they’d had their chances to reverse the decision.

Both Noblesville runs came because of shakier-than-normal North defense, and the Patriots left the bases loaded twice in the last three innings — the second time with T.J. Collett on deck.

“We couldn’t get that tying run in,” Turner said after the game. “If we get the tying run in, we could’ve blown the game open.

“But give them credit. Their pitching kept us off-balance, we had nine or 10 left on base … we had our chances.”

Hicks zipped through the top of the first inning, striking out two, and his teammates gave him the lead in the bottom of the inning.

Zach Milam singled with one out, Collett was hit by a pitch and Nathan Will — who later was honored with the L.V. Phillips Mental Attitude Award — dropped a soft single into left field for the RBI.

A double play ended that inning, however, and also wiped out the bottom of the third after Milam and Collett had one-out singles.

Noblesville had tied the score by that time, getting an unearned run in the top of the third on a wicked, twisting one-hopper that was fumbled, followed by a single and a sacrifice fly.

Hicks escaped a bases-loaded situation — infield hit, hit batter, walk — in the top of the fifth, and in the bottom of the inning the Patriots looked for a moment like they might have an offensive spark.

Jonathan Eilbracht hit a one-out liner into the right-center gap and didn’t stop, even though Noblesville’s center fielder made a clean pickup. Eilbracht got the hustle double without a throw and the Miller went to their bullpen.

“I was kind of scared halfway [to second],” Eilbracht admitted later.

Sophomore Cory Conway came in and walked Milam, then threw a wild pitch with Collett at bat. That left a base open for an intentional pass, which worked out when Conway struck out the next two batters.

A leadoff walk then blossomed into the go-ahead run when Dax McLachlin hit a line drive that fooled a Patriot outfielder, who stumbled as the ball went over his head for a triple.

Hicks kept the runner at third, however, with a strikeout, a fly to left — and strong throw home by Nick Long to keep the runner at third — and a foul popup to Collett.

Again North had its chance to break the game open, as Brett Herndon — who also had a stellar defensive game — walked with one out and pinch-hitter Chase Jones did so with two down. Eilbracht also walked, finishing Conway — who faced nine batters, walking five and striking out three — but Trevor Salmon came in for a big strikeout that again left the bases loaded.

Collett reached base for the fourth straight time with a leadoff single in the bottom of the seventh, but his courtesy runner was picked off and the next two batters were retired.

“We had a good game,” Collett stressed afterward. “There were just a couple key plays that didn’t go our way. All it takes is one more hit [and we win].”

“We were where we wanted to be at the end of the season,” Will added. “We got the opportunity, and that’s all we could ask for.”

“It’s been a heck of a season,” Milam continued. “Getting here? Nobody thought we could do it. We set a goal at the beginning of the year and we didn’t accomplish it, but we came close.”

“I wanted it so bad for all these guys,” Hicks said, “and we all wanted it real bad for coach [Fay] Spetter [who played for the 1974 state champions] and coach Turner.”

“We had a couple mental errors, and I had an error,” Eilbracht said. “It was like we never really peaked in our season, never played the way we could.”

Will was still in tears when he walked to home plate to collect the mental attitude award — also won by Curt Phillips of the 1974 team — and so was his father, who nonetheless was eloquent in a brief tribute to his son.

“I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be recognized like that,” Will told the Tribune-Star a few minutes later. “It was fun for my mom and dad [Julie and David Will] to be down there with me, and I’m thankful to God and everybody in my life — and my teammates especially.

“This was the most fun season I’ve ever had,” Will continued, “and probably the closest-knit group I’ve been around.”

“I’m so proud of my team,” Collett said. “I’ve never played on a more fun team in my life, and I’m sad to see [the nine seniors] go. To know I won’t play with them again really hurts.”

“Not playing with these guys again is going to be tough,” Milam added.

“I’m really pleased with these kids,” Turner concluded, “it just didn’t work out today.”

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