COLUMBUS — Down, but never out.
The Liberty Patriots, who trailed most of the game, came back from a 3-0 deficit to score five runs in the sixth, the go-ahead run coming on an interference call, and defeated the Olentangy Braves 5-3 in a Division I Central District championship game Friday at Ohio Dominican University’s Frank Damian Field.
“The defining moment of the game was how well our kids responded,” Liberty coach Ty Brenning said. “We played well offensively, but they made plays early. A lot of what we talk about is controlling what we can control. We played well early and we weren’t cashing in, but we responded.”
“It was a great team win,” junior first baseman A.J. Kullman said. “Nick pitched well and battled, Jake came in and pitched well, and I just think we have the mentality of never giving up. We didn’t give up against Thomas, we got out early against Pickerington Central and we battled to the end. It was a great team win in every aspect of the game.”
Liberty (24-5) advances to the Division I Region 2 semifinals, taking on Pickerington North at 5 p.m. Thursday at Dublin Coffman High School while Olentangy (15-12) ends its season with a solid run.
“The well’s not dry,” Olentangy coach Ryan Lucas said. “This is only the beginning for us, and that’s what I told our guys after the game — ‘Plan on being back here next year, and when we do come back, we’re advancing.’”
Early on, it was the Braves capitalizing on chances, getting a pair of runs in the second on a sacrifice fly by junior designated hitter Drew Batt and another on a throwing error. Olentangy added a third run in the third when junior catcher Joe McGuinness belted a 1-2 pitch over the right field wall for a solo home run.
With the pitching of sophomore right-hander Collin Hoffman and a solid defense behind them, the game remained 3-0 in the Braves’ favor until that fateful sixth inning.
Olentangy made one great play after another early on, getting a diving catch from senior Tim Feasel on a line drive in the first, a diving stop and throw from second baseman Christian McFarland for the first out of the second inning, a catch of a hot liner by junior Connor Brett in the third, an outfield assist from junior center fielder Grant Helber to end the third inning, and a pair of double plays to keep Liberty off the board.
“Collin pitched a great game,” Lucas said. “Even when they started hitting him, he was still making good pitches, and that’s why I didn’t pull him. He kept making quality pitches, but give them credit. Their players stepped up when they needed to step up, but Collin did a heck of a job on the mound.”
“We were a little too excited to start off and we made a couple of mistakes, but we’re a great team and we’re going to come together eventually,” Liberty senior pitcher/outfielder Jacob Niggemeyer said. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, and I think we came together and said to ourselves, ‘Hey, we’re not done yet.’”
Liberty would finally get off the deck in the sixth, all with one out. Junior shortstop Cameron Comer tripled to the wall in right center and scored on a Niggemeyer single. Junior designated hitter Nick Parr then singled down the third base line to move Niggemeyer to third, and Kullman stroked a single through the left side, scoring Niggemeyer and cutting the lead to one run.
Senior catcher Matt Matthaes then hit another single through the left side, allowing junior pinch runner Nate Meeker to score, but when Kullman rounded third, he collided with Brett near the third base coach’s box and retreated to third. Brenning argued the third baseman had interfered, the home plate umpire agreed, and Kullman scored the go-ahead run.
“When I saw the throw was off line, I saw the third baseman in the basepath,” Kullman said. “I knew it was going to be interference. I ran into him and he knocked me down. We didn’t get the call initially, but when coach Brenning got on them, they changed the call. I didn’t even realize it was the go-ahead run. It was crazy.”
“I don’t think it was intentional, but I do think it was a definite collision,” Brenning said. “To me, though, that wasn’t the defining moment of the game.”
Senior third baseman Mitchell Griffiths then singled to score junior pinch runner Seth Oehler with the insurance run, but Olentangy gave its last shot in the seventh as sophomore shortstop Deeb Haber walked and took third with two out when Feasel reached on a throwing error, but Niggemeyer, who came in to relief of senior right-hander Nick Newton in the fourth, struck out McGuinness for the final out.
“They’re a great team, and so are we,” Niggemeyer said. “They’re a young team and they’re going to make a great run next year, but we were able to get the win today.”
Niggemeyer got the win, allowing one hit and one walk with eight strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings. Newton also pitched well, but allowed three runs, one earned, on five hits with two walks and six strikeouts.
Comer had a triple and a single, Parr a double and a single, Niggemeyer two singles and Kullman, Matthaes, Griffiths and senior Marcus Wechselberger one single each for Liberty’s offense.
Hoffman took the loss, allowing five runs, 10 hits, two walks and a hit batsman with four strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings. Senior Donal Baker worked the final two-thirds, striking out one.
Brett had two singles for Olentangy while McGuinness added his home run. Haber finished with one double with Feasel and Batt adding a single each.