The players cleaned their dugout quietly, paying attention to every detail as they rounded up the balls and cleared the metal bleacher. When they left the dugout and finally separated, the voices were still hushed. No one smiled.
The atmosphere was eerie, especially for a third-seeded Lakota West High School baseball team that just beat No. 9 La Salle 7-3 in Thursday’s Division I sectional final at Princeton’s Viking Stadium.
West won in the small ways. Looking past the seven runs on seven hits, there was no one star for the Firebirds. It was a collective victory.
“That’s the way we’ve done it all year,” West coach Greg Leurck said when the dugout was clean. “It’s been team wins, doing it together. Maybe once this year we went out and busted it all open. We do what we need to get a lead and keep the lead, hopefully.”
Bryce Johnson’s leadoff bunt in the first inning set the tone. Sensing a lackluster Lancer defense, he saw no one covering second and advanced. He later stole third.
When he finally scored, it was only because Brennen Martin, who walked, was stuck in a pickle. With Martin as a decoy, coupled with La Salle pitcher Jake Hughes indecisively dropping the ball trying to make a play, Johnson stole home. Martin got to second.
Perhaps the defining moment for the West offense came in the fourth inning. With the bases loaded, No. 2 hitter Chase Wullenweber laid down a sacrifice bunt, which got between catcher Joe Schmitt and third baseman Brady Reynolds. A.J. Petersen scored and, perhaps unintentionally, the Firebirds kept the bases loaded.
The next batter, Martin, delivered another bunt and scored Frankie Schmitt from third, pushing West’s lead to 4-1.
“Executing at the plate,” Leurck said was the difference in the game. “Getting bunts down when we needed to, putting the ball in play when we needed to, base running, just being aggressive. And Jake doing a great job on the mound.”
Senior right-hander Jacob Kates extended his high school career by clawing through innings. He threw a nine-hitter with six strikeouts.
His success came in his consistency. Even when La Salle’s Drew Greiner, who reached base after a strikeout, scored in the third inning, Kates remained unfazed. In two different innings he allowed a run while keeping runners on second and third.
“It was still nerve-wracking,” Leurck said of the game’s ending. West allowed another run in the seventh, leaving a Lancer runner in scoring position. “I’m not gonna lie, it was nerve-wracking.”
The Firebirds (22-5) advance to a district final Saturday against Springboro at Centerville. First pitch is set for 1:30 p.m.
As for La Salle (17-7), the loss ended the season and the careers of 10 players. The team huddled for 25 minutes after the game, with players and coaches hugging and embracing.
“We were 4-4,” La Salle coach Joe Voegele said. “What’d we end up? 17-7? You always hope your team gets better, and we got better.”
La Salle 001-010-1—3-9-3
Lakota West 101-230-x—7-7-1
WP — Jacob Kates (9-1); LP — Jake Hughes (5-3). Records: LAS 17-7, LW 22-5