INSTANT CLASSIC: Lancers edge past Cubs in regional title game thriller

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Sports

May 19, 2017 - 12:00 AM

ERIE — When the baseball gods sat down to design the perfect playoff baseball game, one could envision they came up with something similar to what took place in Erie on Thursday night between Humboldt and Southeast (Cherokee).
The regional championship showdown had everything that a fan could ask for in a high school baseball game.
“Personally as a coach, I have never been a part of anything like that,” Humboldt coach Mike Miller said.
There were unbelievable pitching performances. There were clutch hits. There was a massive rally. There was plenty of emotion, ranging from absolute joy to incredible frustration. There was even a weather delay to further build the suspense.
But in the end, just one thing was missing for the Cubs’ faithful who made the journey to Erie: a Humboldt regional championship.
Southeast wrestled that title away from the Cubs in a 10-9 game that took all of four hours and nine innings to complete.
Early on, it looked like the top-seeded Cubs were in major trouble against their CNC foe — a league that will be sending four teams to the state tournament next week.
With Southeast being the smallest school in their powerful league, their 10-8 record entering the regional tournament does not reflect their quality.
That big-game experience showed early as the Lancers jumped on Humboldt senior Daylon Splane.
The Humboldt ace had pitched two innings earlier in the day to help send the Cubs to the championship game and it appear to take a couple innings to shake the rust.
The Lancers scored two runs in the first inning and three more in the third inning to jump out to a commanding 5-0 advantage.
The Lancers were fresh off a victory over the No. 10 team in 3A, Jayhawk-Linn, in the semifinals where they rolled to a 12-1 victory. Now the Cubs seemed in danger of having the same thing happen to them.
Humboldt clawed back in the bottom of the third with senior Rayce Hoepker hitting a one-out triple and scoring on a single by second baseman Josh Vanatta.
After the teams exchanged a scoreless fourth frame, the Lancers were able to put up a pair of unearned runs in the top of the fifth and surge out to a 7-1 lead.
“To dig ourselves the hole that we dug and to battle back and have chance to win it was pretty impressive,” Miller said.”I am proud of how our guys competed and battled all day long.”
Even as things were feeling grim for those in the stands, the Cub dugout remained upbeat and Miller credits his seniors and specifically Griffin Voorhies for that.
“He stayed up and kept our guys up,” Miller said of his catcher. “He was our emotional leader when we had chances to roll over. He kept us going all night long.”
That positive energy translated to on-field production in the bottom of the fifth.
After sophomore Wyatt Seufert singled and freshman Jackson Aikens walked, Hoepker reached safely on an infield single to load the bases with no outs.
Vanatta singled to score Seufert and keep the bases filled with Cubs.
After the first out of the inning was recorded on a Splane pop out, Dagen Goodner singled and cut the margin to 7-3 as the bases remained loaded.
After Lance Daniels struck out, Hoepker raced home on a wild pitch to get the Cubs within three.
Then the biggest blast of the inning came from one of the youngest Cubs when freshman Conor Haviland laced a double to the outfield and Vanatta and Goodner came in to score.
“Conor has come a long ways this season,” Miller said. “He came up in some big spots and came through for us. For a freshman to step up like that is big.”
With their advantage down to 7-6, the Lancers brought in a new pitcher and were able to escape the inning with their slim lead intact.
Splane mowed through the Lancer lineup once more in the sixth, but the Lancers returned the favor with a shutout bottom of the sixth.
“Daylon just battled and battled,” Miller said. “He was able to get us deep into the game on a limited pitch count and we couldn’t have asked for more from him tonight.”
Splane hit the leadoff batter in the top of the seventh and reached the state-mandated pitch count of 105, so with no outs and a runner at first, Miller had a decision to make. Does he turn to one of his less-experienced, but fresher arms or does he opt to try and ride his senior aces and bring Hoepker in after he threw 66 pitches in the semifinal game early in the day.
Miller decided to dance with who brought him and he handed the ball to Hoepker.
The senior delivered and got the Cubs out of the inning with no further damage.
Down one, Vanatta and Splane led the bottom of the seventh off with back-to-back singles.
Goodner executed a sac-bunt to move the runners to second and third with one out.
The Lancers opted to intentionally walk Daniels and set up a double-play option and a force out at any base. The decision again put the bat in Haviland’s hands in a season-deciding situation.
The freshman answered the bell again and singled to the outfield.
Vanatta scored easily and Splane raced around third base before Miller held up the stop sign. With one out and the bases still loaded, their seemed no reason to risk it.
But with the game tied for the first time since the top of the first inning, the Lancers buckled down.
They struck out Voorhies and retired Seufert to send the game to extra innings with a 7-7 tie.
A single and a stolen base put a Lancer on second base with one out and then a single — very similar to the one Haviland hit — found its way into left field.
Unlike Miller, the Lancer coach decided to send his runner from second, which proved costly.
The Cubs executed a perfect relay throw with Haviland hitting Seufert and the third baseman throwing to Voorheis for the second out.
Hoepker struck out the next batter and the game went to the bottom of the eighth.
The Cubs had a pair of runners reach, but were unable to score and the drama continued.
After a leadoff single by the Lancers, the plot thickened more with a lightning strike within range for the game to be delayed.
Hoepker only had nine pitches left before he reached the 105 limit and after sitting for three hours between pitches after the semifinals, he was forced to sit again while the weather passed.
“Mental  toughness, maturity, you name it and Rayce has it,” Miller said. “He was huge for us. We were running thin on pitching and he stepped up to get us into extra innings when Daylon ran out of pitches. He did exactly what we needed him to do.”
After roughly hour passed, the game was allowed to continue.
The Lancers quickly stole second, but Hoepker responded with a strike out and he was down to five pitches remaining.
With Hoepker trying to pound the strike zone in order to finish the inning, a first-pitch double gave the Lancers a 8-7 lead.
Hoepker retired the next batter and was able to pitch to one more batter with his total pitches at 104.
A triple made the score 9-7 and Hoepker was forced off the mound. He moved to second base as Vanatta came in to pitch.
The Lancers singled to make the score 10-7, but Voorheis ended the inning by gunning down a steal attempt at second.
The Cubs would need three runs to continue the game or four to win it in the bottom of the ninth.
Goodner led off with a single and after the Lancers got an out, Haviland came through with another double to put runners on second and third with one out.
Voorheis scored a Goodner with a ground out, but with two outs and down two, the Cubs were down to their last chance.
Seufert cashed it in with a single to score Haviland.
After Aikens walked, Hoepker came up with the game-tying run at second and the winning run at first.
The Lancers buckled down one final time though and retired Hoepker on a strikeout.
“I hate it, really hate it, for Rayce,” Miller said. “He has given so much and done so much for our program. I hate that he ended up making that final out and that is tough.”
The game ends the Cub careers of Voorheis, Hoepker and Splane.
“They have made a huge impact on the program. We’ve built it up and in order to do that, you need senior leaders,” Miller said. “They have meant a lot to us. I love them and we are going to miss them, but now it is time for the next guys to step up.”

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