TRINIDAD, Colo — The heart-tugging defeat might go down as the most memorable game Western Nevada College ever played on the baseball diamond; this for a program that won three Western District tournament titles and participated in three National Junior College Athletic Association World Series.
Showing great character and unwavering competitiveness, the Wildcats rallied from an eight-run deficit after giving up 10 runs in the fourth inning on Saturday in Trinidad, Colo. A two-run ninth inning engineered by DJ Peters and Tim Lichty pulled the Wildcats even with Yavapai College in the Western District baseball tournament championship, only to see the Roughriders win it in the bottom of the ninth on Dylan Enwiller’s walk-off grand slam for a 20-16 win.
It was the final game in the WNC’s storied program.
“This team embodied the spirit of any Wildcats’ team we have ever had,” said WNC coach D.J. Whittemore. “I’m happy this team got to be the last team because they represented every team we ever had incredibly well.”
Central Park is a hitter friendly park without the wind assisting. With a steady 20-25 mph wind blowing toward center and left fields in the final game, the park became a utopia for hitters. WNC and Yavapai combined for four homers, 41 hits and 36 runs in the championship game.
WNC led 7-5 going into the bottom of the fourth inning, but the Roughriders struck for two homers, a triple and three doubles to produce a 10-run rally.
But the Wildcats didn’t fold. They came back with a six-run uprising in the sixth. Four walks, Casey Cornwell’s two-run single and a RBI base hit by Bradley Lewis contributed to the comeback.
“That has been the word on them, that they will never quit,” Yavapai coach Ryan Cougill said. “We didn’t think they were going to quit; they just fought back.”
Kyle Thompson, who replaced WNC starting pitcher Chase Kaplan in the 10-run inning, shut out the Roughriders in the fifth and sixth innings to allow his teammates time to rally.
“Most teams would have given up,” Thompson said. “Nobody was giving up; it was the fourth inning. A lot of their guys were hunting fastball and the wind was blowing in their favor, so I pitched the backwards a little bit to throw them off.”
After Brock Ephan’s fifth RBI of the game put Yavapai on top 16-13 in the the seventh inning, the Wildcats put the finishing touches on their unlikely comeback in the final two frames. David Modler’s sacrifice fly to deep center field brought home Cornwell as WNC crept within 16-14 in the eighth.
In the ninth, Peters greeted Andrew Gross with a single up the middle. Gross closed out Yavapai’s 8-4 victory over WNC on Friday, but the submarine pitcher’s delivery didn’t fool the Wildcats the second time around.
“We just never give up,” Peters said. “You could throw 20 runs up there on the scoreboard and we’re still going to battle you one pitch at a time.”
Lichty’s one-out double to left-center sent Peters to third, and both came home on Brogan Secrist’s infield base hit. Second baseman Enwiller’s throw got past first baseman Ephan on the game-tying play, allowing Lichty to go an extra 90 feet.
“It shows the character these guys have and how bad everyone wants it and how everyone wants everyone on this team to succeed,” Lichty said.
Secrist stole second base as Daniel Nist fanned for the second out. Cornwell, who delivered hits in his previous three at-bats, flew out to center to end the rally.
However, the Roughriders retaliated with a scoring threat of their own in the ninth against Jordan Dreibelbis, who struck out three Roughriders in the seventh and eighth innings. Christian Maggi led off with a single and went to second on Nate Easley’s bunt single. Ephan’s deep drive to right was hauled in by Abe Yagi, but Maggi advanced to third. The Wildcats decided to intentionally walk Gavin Johns to set up a force at any base, then Whittemore brought in Yagi to give his team five infielders. Dreibelbis got ahead of Enwiller, but Enwiller fouled off several pitches to work a full count. Needing to throw a strike Dreibelbis came in with a curveball, and Enwiller blasted it over the left-fence to end the game.
“I’m thrilled that we got a chance to win it there in the ninth,” Cougill said. “It feels really good that you are able to beat a real quality opponent.”
Yavapai left-hander Hayden Durkiewicz entered the finals with impressive pitching statistics, including a 6-2 record, 2.13 ERA and 67 strikeouts and only 21 walks in 74 2/3 innings. But those notable numbers didn’t impress Peters, who launched a homer so far over the left-field fence in the first inning that fans were still buzzing about the bomb between innings. It was Peters’ WNC record 16th homer of the season and record 23rd all-time in a Wildcat uniform.
Staked with a 1-0 lead, Wildcat starter Chase Kaplan battled to keep the Roughriders off the scoreboard in his opening frame. Ramsey Romano, a thorn in the Wildcats’ side a day earlier, singled and advanced to third base on two groundouts to Cornwell. Kaplan worked a 2-2 count on cleanup hitter Ephan before surrendering a game-tying RBI single just past diving second baseman Modler into right field.
The Wildcats answered in the second inning in a big way as Nist took Durkiewicz deep, clearing the center-field fence for a three-run homer. Lichty and Brad Lewis set the table for Nist with a double and single, respectively.
Durkiewicz’s first two pitches in the third were knocked into right field by Yagi and Lichty for base hits. Lewis’ groundout moved up each Wildcat a base, setting up Nist for a sacrifice fly and a 5-1 WNC edge.
Romano triggered a scoring chance for the Roughriders in their half of the third. He doubled into the left-field corner, went to third on a groundout and scored on a Kaplan wild pitch. Kaplan walked Nate Easley on four pitches and Ephan’s bad-hop double over shortstop Cornwell brought home Easley to make the score 5-3. Johns took care of the rest of his team’s deficit with a two-run homer to left-center.
WNC regained the lead, 7-5, in the fourth on two-out RBI singles by Peters and Lichty.
That didn’t dismay the Roughriders, who sent 11 batters to the plate in the bottom of the fourth, scoring 10 runs to take a 15-7 lead. Caden Goldby opened the Roughrider fourth with a home run to left, and before the damage was done, Yavapai smacked two homers, a triple, three doubles and three singles.
Kaplan left with Yavapai ahead 10-7, forcing Whittemore to dip into his depleted bullpen. Three uncharacteristic errors behind reliever Kyle Thompson extended the rally. Thompson, who threw 29 pitches in the fourth inning, worked 1-2-3 fifth and sixth innings to cool off the Yavapai offense.
In their final games for the Wildcats, Lichty was 5 for 5 with three runs scored and two RBI; Peters was 3 for 5 with four runs scored and two RBI; Nist was 2 for 6 with two runs scored and four RBI; Cornwell was 3 for 6 with a run scored and two RBI; Yagi was 3 for 5 with two runs scored and Chad Bell was 2 for 5.
WNC won its fifth Region 18 title the previous weekend and finished with a 43-19 record.