The Lake Country Lutheran baseball team has bludgeoned its foes all year long, racking up scores and scores of offense. But to win its first state championship, the Lightning had to encounter a season's worth of drama in one afternoon.
After losing a lead with two outs in the seventh, then watching two two-run leads evaporate in extras, LCL still had enough to escape every jam and put together the offense it needed to triumph with an 11-7 win over McDonell Central and the WIAA Division 4 state title at Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton on Thursday, June 19.
It was LCL's first state championship and capped the season at 32-0, the first undefeated season in any division since Sun Prairie won the Division 1 title in 2005. The Lightning finished the year with 20 victories shortened by the run-rule and 27 contests of scoring 10 runs or more. But this game was nothing like the rest.
"There was really a point at which I had to become OK with the potential that we could lose, because they're a really good team," LCL coach David Bahr said. "They kept answering. Every time you go up two, you figure this is it. All year long, these pitchers are going to get us out of an inning without giving up two runs. You have to give a ton of credit to McDonell Central for just coming back."
Chris Kornowski singled and came around to score on a wild pitch in the 11th to give LCL an 8-7 lead, marking the fourth time LCL had scored a go-ahead run in the seventh inning or later. CJ Teske's two-run single against reliever Caleb Olson made the score 10-7, and Murphy Shannon plated another with a single. It would have seemed like plenty on any other day.
"Since they just switched their pitchers, I wasn't sure how he was going to throw because they were going pretty deep into their pitching lineup," said Teske, who finished with two hits and three RBIs. "My goal was to take the first couple pitches to see how he was, and then he gave me one up and in and I just turned on it."
But though McDonell's bottom of the order was due up, the first two batters reached against Jesse Turner, laboring through his third inning of work. Turner had only worked multiple innings once this season, limited by a shoulder injury, but he was an exceptional fourth option for the Lightning while McDonell found itself using pitchers that had also scarcely thrown this season.
Turner registered flyout and fielder's choice, followed by a groundout back to the mound, and the Lightning had finally secured the crown.
"It was completely unexpected and nerve-racking, shocking and agonizing," Turner said. "We haven't seen anything like this all year. The competition was stiff. ... We've had an easy ride, honestly. We got here with a bunch of run-rules in the playoffs, and it was unexpected to have a close game, but we fought through it and our guys came up big in clutch situations."
The 31/2-hour game managed to achieve a new level of craziness beyond the 2013 title-game loss to Greenwood, when the Lightning allowed three runs to Greenwood in the bottom of the sixth and had to settle for a heartbreaking 6-4 defeat. Turner was on the mound when those final runs scored, and he openly admitted that game was on his mind.
"All day, before the game even started," Turner said of the flashbacks. "There were so many situations where it could have gone wrong, and it went right. There were so many situations where it could have gone right and didn't. Errors were made; I made an error that was terrible. I tried to keep (last year) out of the head on the mound, but as soon as I hit the dugout, it just floods back. It's like, 'I don't want to go through this again.' Our guys came up big."
Turner's error turned what could have been the final out of the game into new life for McDonell Central.
Teske's sacrifice fly in the 10th and a throwing error by shortstop Sam Sorensen on Jake Hall's grounder — one that looked very similar to a key error by Hall earlier in the game — plated a crucial insurance run to make it 7-5.
But LCL had been in that position before, when it scored twice in the ninth to take a 5-3 lead and couldn't seal the deal. McDonell turned the feat yet again, when Turner mishandled a tapper back to the mound from Aaron Milkert and couldn't keep the tying run from scampering home.
But Turner also stopped short of surrendering the winning run, ultimately stranding runners in scoring position with less than two outs in all three frames. That gave LCL another chance in the 11th.
"I love coming in during tough situations," Turner said. "Today, I didn't have my best stuff, so I had to focus on throwing strikes and using my fielders. Just the experience in the last three years really helped this fourth year. I haven't gotten a lot of innings this year, and today I came in and I had a feeling I would come in."
More escape jobs
Kornowski pitched in the eighth and stranded the bases loaded in another terrific escape job. After McDonell loaded the bags on a walk, bunt single and error, a bunt from No. 9 hitter Jake Wiensch came back to Kornowski, who was able to shuffle to Shannon at the dish and narrowly secure the force. Leadoff man Zach Gilles grounded into a force out and guaranteed another inning.
"You never see that," Bahr said of the bases-loaded squeeze, noting another play early in the game when Shannon caught a squeeze bunt that turned into an unassisted double play to escape a jam. "Both of those plays, with the way the game turned out like it did, were absolutely huge plays."
The Lightning were also one out away from victory in the seventh with a runner at second and Sorensen at the plate. His sharp grounder was fielded by shortstop Hall, who made a sensational diving stop to keep the ball on the infield, but his throw sailed over Teske's head at first base, and Gilles came around to score and tie the game at 3-3.
"I kind of wanted to be the hero there," Hall admitted. "I guess I got a little anxious and overthrew."
Hall did, however, finish the game with four hits, two RBIs and two run scored, including the go-ahead tally in the seventh when a throw from the outfield hit the lip of the grass and bounded to the backstop. Hall, who had been held coming around third on Jacob Budnik's single, ran home with the big tally.
"I was just feeling really comfortable in the box," said the sophomore Hall, who was one of the few players in the starting lineup this season that hadn't been part of last year's run to the state-title game. "The last few games, I've been seeing the ball and driving the ball well."
Junior Ben Wilkins, who allowed two unearned runs that knotted the game at 2-2 in the fourth, struck out the first man he faced in the seventh before Bahr turned to lefty BJ Sabol, who had worked six innings the night before in the state semifinal win and was allotted one more inning by WIAA pitching regulations. Sabol struck out the first man he saw before yielding the sharp grounder to short that led to Hall's error.
Hall singled home runs in the second and fourth, staking his team to a 2-0 lead early.
Wilkins, who allowed three earned runs on six hits in four innings during the 2013 title game, allowed one run on five hits in his 6 1/3 innings, with eight strikeouts and six walks. He retired the first two batters of the fifth and caught a break when Sorensen overslid second base on a steal attempt, and Shannon threw out another would-be base stealer in the sixth, when the Lightning ultimately stranded two runners in the frame.
"It just tore your heart out every single second of the way," Bahr said. "We had a couple other close scores (during the year), but we just felt like we were in control in those games. But this game, they battled. McDonell Central gets a ton of credit, and they just kept coming back and coming back."
But not the last time.
"Our ultimate goal was to end up winning state," Teske said. "I guess we never thought we were going to go undefeated; we were just a good team and wound up going undefeated."
5 Key Moments
Plays in Lake Country Lutheran's wild 11-7 win that might have gone unnoticed:
1. Catcher Murphy Shannon caught a popped up squeeze bunt in the second, when McDonell Central had placed runners at the corners with one out. He had so much time to record the out on the charging runner that he wound up running to third base for an unassisted double play.
2. Shannon's biggest play of the game, however, came in the eighth, after McDonell loaded the bases with one out. A surprise squeeze bunt came back to pitcher Chris Kornowski, who shuffled to Shannon in time for the force. Shannon caught the ball with his bare hand before getting taken out on the slide.
3. First baseman CJ Teske deftly secured a low underhanded throw from pitcher Jesse Turner in the 10th. Turner had just made an error with two outs that had allowed McDonell to tie the game at 7, and had the throw gotten away, McDonell would have scored the winning run.
4. After Ben Wilkins allowed two unearned runs to score and a third runner to reach second base with nobody out in the fourth, he struck out three consecutive hitters to escape further damage in a 2-2 game.
5. LCL's ability to win the state semifinal in six innings gave BJ Sabol one more allotted inning for the final. He entered in the seventh and struck out the No. 2 and No. 4 hitters for McDonell, even though an error in between tied the game.
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