State finals: Everything but the finish

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Jasper’s Spencer Otto, right, hugged teammate Craig Schneider following the Wildcats’ 2-1 loss to Norwell in the Class 3A state title game Friday at Victory Field in Indianapolis. The Cats snared a 1-0 edge in the second inning but after that, they didn’t record a hit until there were two outs in the seventh inning. A photo gallery from the game can be found here.

Herald Sports Editor

INDIANAPOLIS — The glum faces wearing Jasper pinstripes thought. And thought. Nowhere in the course of Friday’s Class 3A state championship could the Wildcats conjure any regrets of the self-inflicted nature.

Their pitchers effectively leashed Norwell to a season-low run total. Against Knights standout pitcher Josh VanMeter, taken as a shortstop in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Padres organization, the Wildcats generated glimpses to score. Their defense, which was once perhaps the soft spot within a season when the Wildcats ascended to the top of the 3A rankings much of the spring, never flinched.

The consensus seemed to be that the Wildcats dropped every conceivable piece in place to make their sixth state championship happen. It didn’t, even as Jasper sidestepped trouble and forged threats. The discourse after third-ranked Norwell grazed top-ranked Jasper 2-1 seemed a tad non sequitur — Jasper coach Terry Gobert, who’s traditionally judicious with praise in winning was effusive with kudos after the Cats collected the state runner-up trophy for the second time in the last four seasons.

“I think we played phenomenal,” Gobert said. “We just couldn’t get the big hit. I think we battled every inning, and look how many punch-outs and how many plays — even if they were routine — we made them all. It was a fun game to coach in. ... It was a very fun game to be involved in.”

And one where Jasper (32-4) pounced first, gaining a 1-0 edge in the second inning after Austin Alles singled, Norwell bungled a throw to second off Scott Stallwood’s sacrifice bunt and Cal Krueger later pushed Alles home on an RBI groundout.

The Cats nearly doubled their lead the next batter. But Stallwood, who got a bit of a late jump on another grounder to the shortstop, was thrown out at home plate. The unsuccessful arrival at home was met with grumbles from a Wildcat contingent that thought Stallwood swooped under the tag of Norwell catcher Cale Schumm. Close calls and contentious exchanges became maddening themes for Jasper.

In the third inning, Victory Field’s cavernous outfield swallowed Nick Gobert’s deep shot, which would have been a no-doubter homer anywhere else but was snagged at the warning track.
“I thought that was way out,” acknowledged Gobert, who raised a finger in the air as he rounded first base.

Jasper’s Scott Stallwood tried to slip past Norwell catcher Cale Schumm while trying to score in the second inning. Stallwood was called out on the play, and the Cats had just two runners reach scoring position the rest of the game.

Quality swings became an endangered species against VanMeter, who’s “the best player in the state, in my mind,” Norwell coach Andy McClain touted. Keeping afloat against VanMeter’s stuff was difficult enough, but the Cats began to feel they were swimming against the tide, too.

Jasper was left guessing against a strike zone that wandered, as Wildcat hitters continually plodded back to the dugout befuddled about when to swing and when to take. After Andy Knust, Jasper’s leadoff hitter in the seventh inning, watched successive high pitches that were both called strikes, Terry Gobert fired down the line to question the calls, wrapping an arm around Knust’s shoulder while heatedly pleading his case.

The Cats had no salvation against the strike zone. And ultimately, too, against VanMeter, who assembled a three-hit complete game.

“He threw hard enough, just enough movement, just enough low and away that it gave us trouble,” Gobert said. “It’s supposed to be tough up here.”

Norwell could sing the same tune, too, because the Knights (33-3) cracked the Cats just twice, on similar patterns in the third and fifth innings.

VanMeter worked leadoff walks and University of Arkansas recruit Jonah Patten ushered him home both time with two-out knock — first on a hit that plopped to the grass just out of grasp of a diving Devon Traylor in center field, then on a gapper to right-center.

The Cats blunted further potential trouble. They turned an inning-ending double play with two runners on, Nick Gobert fanned two Knights looking with runners on second and third, and the Cats cut down Patten at third when he tried to stretch one more base out of his double.

McClain had no trouble putting his finger on how Nick Gobert, who sustained just his second career pitching loss (22-2), kept the Knights’ breakthroughs down to a shout.

“It’s Coach Gobert’s son. He’s a competitor. It’s Jasper baseball, they’re good,” McClain said. “But we were able to knock him out tonight. He was just keeping us off-balance and able to make plays. It was good baseball.”

Jasper didn’t let the curtain close on the show without one final murmur.

Down to their last out in the seventh inning, Traylor, the 9-hole hitter, stepped in with the lingering memory of two strikeouts earlier in the game. First pitch, line shot into left field, prompting a roar from the passel of Wildcat fans that filled a section of Victory Field that snaked from behind home plate and around the first-base side.

“Before I got that hit, even, I knew we were alive,” Traylor said. “We’ve come back on two outs and scored, I think nine runs was the most we scored one time. We defintiely had a chance there at the end too.

Added Nick Gobert: “Your wheels are gong in your head, there’s going to be a shot, there’s going to be a shot.”

Moments later, the push was snuffed out.

Ben Moore’s floating liner settled into the glove of Norwell second baseman Jordan Dantzner. Nick Gobert, who was stationed in the on-deck circle, froze with his elbows pointed toward the sky and his bat draped behind his back. Gobert didn’t move a muscle for about 30 seconds.

The finality smarted for Gobert and the rest of a clan of seven seniors who were on the fringe of a state title as freshman and were left to settle for second-best again.

“To be this close and be this close to getting your picture on the wall and having a blue one around your neck, it’s hard to swallow,” Nick said with a wry smile.

“Right now it’s the worst feeling ever. But looking back at it, you’re going to realize, ”˜Wow, we were the second-best team in our class.’ You don’t think about that right now, you just think about being one run away, sending it into extra innings, and winning a state championship. It’s going to mean more as you look back, but right now it hurts pretty bad.”

The rewind on the Cats’ season contained a sunnier tenor.

Gobert cast credit over an group he said was like none other he’s led in his 26 years, thanks the perpetual litany of position changes that the Cats endured before arriving at a lineup that worked.
From a lineup in limbo to a team tantalizingly close to appending to the program’s state title hardware, Terry Gobert beamed at the path.

“I told them after the game that it’s just been a pleasure, it’s just been a joy. So many pieces to put together, and so many kids just hung in there,” Gobert said. “If you had to pick, man to man, most people athletically would take Norwell at a lot of positions, but we talk abotu heart and character. It’s just been a pleasure to coach this group. Every day. Every practice. There might have been a time or two where I got on them, but man, they’ve been fun to be around.

“I couldn’t ask for a better season, other than a win right here. I didn’t get into coaching just to see how many state titles we could win. I got into it to take a team and develop them, and this ranks right up there with the team chemistry. They were outstanding.”

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