BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – Western High School should consider retiring the No. 9 baseball uniform. Or maybe they should give the number to everyone on the field. For the second time in the last five seasons, the player wearing the No. 9 jersey in the semi-state round of the IHSAA State Tournament has been the hero in sending the Panthers to Victory Field and a shot at the Class 3A state championship.
“It is a testament to these guys’ will to win,” said Western head coach Quentin Brown. “This group is very talented. At the beginning of the year, we had a saying of, ‘501.’ That is the address of Victory Field. We have said 501 all year. And now we are going!”
On a warm Saturday afternoon at Kokomo Municipal Stadium, Western played a nearly perfect game and dominated the Delta Eagles (20-9) by a 15-4 score to claim the Kokomo Semi-State championship. Luke Florek – wearing the No. 9 that Drew Bellus wore in 2012 – led the charge with a three-hit game. Of his five at-bats, it was the second inning that will send the leadoff hitter into Panther lore.
The inning started with a Pat Mills walk, but Delta looked like they would get out of the inning unscathed following a strikeout and ground out. With two outs, Tyler Burthay drew a walk and Cooper O’Neal drilled an 0-2 pitch for an RBI single. Jacob Douglass walked to load the bases, and following a trip to the mound by Delta coach Seth Paul to calm down pitcher Arian Coffey, Florek launched the next pitch over the Municipal Stadium left-field wall for a grand slam.
“We knew Coffey liked to throw the curve ball a lot, and we sat on that pitch early in the game – even when he threw it for strikes – and we hammered the fast ball,” explained Brown. “We have had that mindset for the last three games.”
Florek’s grand slam came after he popped out to short to start the game. Between innings, Brown stopped and chatted with his leadoff hitter – and the rest is history. Following his grand slam, Florek ripped a single, was hit by a pitch and crushed a double for a 3 for 4 afternoon at the plate.
“I told Florek that he was a little tight on his swing,” said Brown of the conversation. “He popped up the infield fly ball. I told him to relax himself on the next AB (at-bat) and get some extension with the barrel. Low and behold, he put it out and that was the kick-start. After that, it was downhill and we knew we had something going.”
Bellus, playing for the 2012 state champion Panthers, also wore No. 9 proudly. Down by one going into the seventh inning of the Kokomo Semi-State, Bellus drew a walk and eventually scored the go-ahead run that sent Western to Indianapolis. Another similarity to the 2012 semi-state title was the play of the bottom of the Panthers batting order. In 2012, the 6-7-8 hitters were 8 for 11 with six RBIs, six runs and three extra base hits. Fast forward to 2016 and the same batting positions (Brodee Lipinski, Burthay and O’Neal) were 7 for 12 with six RBIs, five runs scored and they reached base nine times. O’Neal reached base in his first four at-bats and finished with two singles, a double, three runs, two RBIs and a stolen base.
“I have always said that the team that hits the most is going to win,” said Brown after his Panthers outhit Delta 17-7. “I cannot stress how crucial those guys have been. We inserted Cooper into the eight-hole in the first game of the sectional. We were looking for something that could be a spark at the end of the lineup. Since he has been in there he has been an absolute spark for us. The top of the lineup is doing their thing, but the bottom is what keeps it moving.”
The Panthers followed the five-run second with four more in the third. Kaleb Howard led off with a double, and Tyler Knepley singled to put runners on the corners with one out. Lipinski followed with a sacrifice fly to center and Burthay and O’Neal both delivered RBI singles to extend the lead to 8-0. DeWeese plated O’Neal for a 9-0 lead on a walk.
Meanwhile, Panther ace pitcher Dalton Leighty was throwing bullets. He retired nine of the first 10 Delta hitters before giving up an unearned run in the fourth inning. Improving to 9-2 on the season, Leighty threw a complete game seven-hitter. He gave up four runs, three of which were earned, and struck out six.
“Yes, they scored late, but we felt zero pressure,” said Brown. “Dalton was hot and got some cramps. He just wanted to stay in the zone (with the lead). And I said that was fine. That is what happens when you get a lead – your pitcher does not have to stress. We know what Dalton does and what he gives us.”
Looking back at the season, Brown points to a loss in the Hoosier Conference Tournament semi-finals as the tipping-point of the season. The Panthers had a mid-season slump and then lost a heart-breaking 3-2, nine-inning game to Class 1A No. 1 Lafayette Central Catholic – a team that is also playing this coming Saturday. In the loss, several miscues, including on the base paths, lead to the loss.
“I firmly believe that game sparked us,” recalled Brown. “We sat in the outfield that day – I will never forget it – they were crying, everyone was upset after a tough loss like that, and I said, ‘Please remember this feeling.’ They all looked up and I told them to, ‘Remember the feeling that you have right now. You don’t ever want to have that feeling again. But at the same time I don’t ever want you to go away from it. I want you to keep that feeling in your body and know this is never how I want to be because I didn’t come through.’ Since then we have come through on the base paths and fielding and hitting. It is all working out for the good right now.”
The good included seven of the nine players scoring RBIs and all nine starters had hits for the Panthers in the semi-state game. Along with Florek and O’Neal, DeWeese had two RBIs, Howard had three hits (single, double and triple), Mills had two RBI’s, Knepley scored twice, Lipinski had two singles and two RBIs, Burthay had two singles and two RBIs, and Douglass had a run and an RBI.
Western’s (18-13) next stop is Victory Field, where they will battle the Northview Knights (24-6) from Brazil in Clay County. Game time for the Class 3A state championship game is scheduled for approximately 7 p.m. (following the 1A and 2A games).