State finals: The sting of second

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Jasper’s Mark Giesler took a moment to himself in the dugout after the Wildcats lost 2-1 to Norwell in Friday’s Class 3A state baseball championship at Victory Field in Indianapolis. Giesler and a seven-man senior crew helped engineer the Wildcats’ 14th trip to the state finals, and Jasper expects to be well-stocked next season thanks to underclassmen who offered crucial contributions in Friday’s title game. A gallery of photos from the game can be found here.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — The nerves can be overwhelming. The moment too immense. The tension uncontrollable.

Yet what distinguishes a state finals contender is its ability to cope, to compose, to overcome the pressure of the moment.

For the Jasper baseball team, whose 32 wins rank as the second-most in program history, Friday night’s clash with Norwell in the Class 3A state championship exemplified just that: When things appeared in doubt, the Cats salvaged an answer.

And perhaps most promising for the top-ranked Wildcats, who fell 2-1 to the No. 3 Knights at Victory Field in Indianapolis, were the faces who provided those responses.

Shepherd

Just as Norwell (33-3) appeared poised to strike for big innings at the plate, Jasper’s sturdy crop of young talent came through. When offense proved scarce as could be for the Cats (32-4), underclassmen mustered what they could.

While seniors shouldered the bulk of the load all season, Friday supplied an opportunity for the other Wildcats to, in a way, display what they’d learned.

“They’re amazing,” freshman Craig Shepherd said of the senior class as he became choked up. “There’s no other group like them.”

Ultimately, even the efforts from those who followed the seniors’ lead all season proved not enough, leading to Jasper’s second runner-up finish in the last four seasons.

The play of the Wildcats’ next generation did, however, underline a primary characteristic of the Jasper program, Shepherd said. It’s a constant process.

“We’re just going to try and keep going from what the seniors taught us,” Shepherd said. “We know what we can do and what the seniors helped us do.

“Just keep passing the torch.”

Moments through the contest encapsulated that very notion. The Wildcats mustered just three hits, and while the combined pitching effort of seniors Nick Gobert and Mark Giesler certainly preserved the Wildcats’ chances, crucial plays by the less assuming triggered mania.

After Norwell positioned runners on first and second base with one out in the first inning, Shepherd grabbed a hard-hit ball at shortstop and flipped it to second base to classmate Cal Krueger, who then fired to first to complete the double play and escape the jam.

In the second, Austin Alles led off the inning with a single to left field. After the sturdy sophomore reached third base on an error and a passed ball, Krueger knocked a grounder to shortstop, scoring Alles for the Wildcats’ lone run.

“The seniors lead us, we’re just the role players right now,” Krueger said. “But in that situation, I stepped up and got the RBI.”

From there, the standoff was protected with defense. The plays came from nearly everyone.

After Norwell shortstop Jonah Patten drilled an RBI double to the gap in right-center field to give the Knights their 2-1 advantage in the bottom of the fifth inning, Spencer Otto chased down the belted ball and fired to Krueger, the cut-off man. The freshman, standing to the right of second base some 10 yards beyond the infield dirt, lasered the ball to Alles at third base as Patten looked to stretch his hit into a triple.

The ball snapped right into Alles’ glove at chest-level. Tag. Third out. Further danger averted.

The freshman middle infielders, Shepherd and Krueger, didn’t falter at any point. Six assists, including the double play, a grounder Shepherd charged on the infield grass to end the third inning with a runner on second and three additional grounders between the two.

Their first state finals. Their composure suggested otherwise.

“We did our thing out there,” Shepherd said. “Coach (Gobert) gave us a job to do and we knew we were out there to do that, to pick up people and do what we needed to do.”

In the bottom of the sixth, Norwell’s Austin Dettmer singled to lead off the inning. After Giesler delivered a curveball in the dirt, which the batter hacked at, junior catcher Scott Stallwood dug the ball and rifled a toss to Shepherd at second, gunning down Dettmer.

“Mark threw a good pitch for a strike and I wouldn’t say I got real lucky but I picked it like I have before and just threw my hardest down there, tried to put it on the money,” Stallwood recalled. “It was right there and Shepherd put a great tag on.”

Entwined throughout the stalemate, Jasper’s youth beamed brightly — sporadic displays portraying what’s to come for the storied program.

“We don’t worry about what grade you’re in. We don’t worry about how old you are. We just put guys in there that can play, and this was a good representation of some of the younger guys we have,” said Jasper JV coach Jeremy Wolf, who coached Krueger and Shepherd toward the beginning of the season. “They just kind of grow up in this culture that we have here and know that (performing is) something they need to do when they come up. They represented us very well.”

The loss marked the end of careers for seven seniors: Gobert, Giesler, Andy Knust, Seth Hollinden, Craig Schneider, Nathan Leibering and Devon Traylor. Simply by observing the senior class, Alles said, the younger contributors matured.

“We obviously have some talent,” Alles said, “but we really watched the senior class. We watched them and learned how to really work hard. They taught us some good work habits.”

As Krueger proclaimed, the next mission entails resolving what remains unfulfilled, keeping in mind the veterans who helped them recognize the opportunity.

“We’ve got to keep it going because we want to get back here again. Next year, we want to win it.
We’ve got to get back here again,” Krueger said. “The seniors have shown us so much. I want to give a shout, a thank you to them for showing us how to win, how to win right. We really want to get back here again. The seniors showed us how to get it done.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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