Wildcats made incredible 2006 run

Herald FIle Photo
Jasper capped off an unbelievable comeback in the 2006 Class 3A state championship game when Josh Sermersheim, bottom right, drove in Sam Linette. The Wildcats captured their fifth state title in history after rallying for a 13-12 win in the bottom of the seventh against Norwell. 

By GREG ECKERLE
gregeckerle@twc.com

If ever a team defied the odds, it was Jasper's 2006 Class 3A baseball state champions. Analytics experts would have frowned on their chances. Their statistics are nowhere near historic, except for one remarkable achievement – they won more games than any other squad in Jasper baseball's long and storied history.

At an impressive 34-1, they came tantalizingly close to an undefeated season. True to that quirky year, they were heavy favorites in the one game they lost. And how their wild state championship game unfolded, packed with one unlikely storyline after another, is the stuff of legend.

The seeds for that campaign's craziness were actually sown the year before, in the 2005 sectional championship victory over Vincennes, the infamous Helmet Game. Vincennes appeared to win the game in the bottom of the ninth, 1-0, but that run was disallowed when the runner removed his helmet in celebration before crossing home plate. Jasper, no-hit through seven innings, finally scored on Broc Litherland's 14th-inning home run. A Vincennes threat in the bottom of the 14th was thwarted when a batter whiffed on Luke Mehringer's curve ball during a suicide squeeze attempt. Catcher Sam Linette easily tagged out the runner trying to score. It was Mehringer's third pitching appearance in the contest. After that bizarre game, juniors Linette, Mehringer and Litherland, along with classmates Adam Klatka and Jace Rasche, were ready for more oddities in their 2006 senior season.

The first sign of trouble surfaced in January, when coach Terry Gobert received a phone call from a discouraged Mehringer. He had been nursing injuries to a knee and his pitching arm, and had just returned from a doctor visit. "They were going to shut him down," said Gobert. "He was really down. I told him, 'Get in the saddle and work, and plan for the end of the year. Don't assume you're not going to pitch. You never know, you could end up getting the win in the state championship game.'" That was the year when such dreams came true.

The Wildcats, at 9-0, averted an early season calamity at Princeton. Leading comfortably, 11-3, they hung on for an 11-10 win. Linette, a four-year starting catcher and a three-year team MVP, recalled that "Coach Gobert and I did not see eye-to-eye that game." But it was the discussion the two had afterward that still resonates with Linette. "Coach told me, 'I finally saw the leader come out in you today.' I'm going, what? Coach said, 'From here on out, I want you seniors to take this team, and it's your team, now let's go win a state championship.' I said, OK, and we shook hands."

"That group was more tight-knit than some," said Gobert. "All five of those seniors set a good example. They were determined and flat out wanted to win."

The Class 3A No. 1 Cats rolled into a showdown game at No. 2 Vincennes, a rivalry hyped more than usual because of the previous season's Helmet Game, plus they were the state's only two unbeaten teams, both 19-0. Tension was high. "There was already a loud and large crowd as we got off the bus," said Mehringer. "They were waiting for us, and they weren't shy." After Jasper won, 3-1, Linette recalled Gobert telling the players to act like they were supposed to win the game. But as the bus was pulling out of the parking lot, Litherland said Gobert "got really fired up." "He looked back at us, got our attention, and said, 'Give me an all right!' And we all shouted, 'All right!' It was a pretty fun moment."

But the euphoria was short-lived as Jasper lost at home the next night in its Hall of Fame Classic, 4-2, to Providence. "They were a very mediocre team, that was an eye opener for us, that we weren't invincible," said Linette. Litherland termed the loss a "good wake-up call." "We were on a high from the Vincennes win, and it really brought us back to earth. We said in the dugout, hey, if we lose in the first round of the next tournament, that's the end of the season." They took to heart Gobert's continual reminders to bring their competitive fires every game, because opponents relished beating Jasper.

The Wildcats never lost again, although the sectional championship game was one for the record books. Jasper somehow beat Pike Central, 1-0, despite being no-hit by Bo Daves, who ironically had played for Jasper his first two years. "We had changed our signs, but if we put something on, he'd move his third baseman," said Gobert, laughing. "It was unlike any game I'd ever coached." It was strange, too, for the Jasper players. "We were still tight with Bo," said Linette. "So facing him was emotional." Mehringer noted, "Bo knew Jasper baseball. He kept us off balance. He knew who he could probably get out on off-speed pitches." Jasper scored the only run by capitalizing on two infield errors. Linette and Daves hugged after the game, and Daves implored his ex-teammates and friends to go win a state title. Litherland, who had moved from Tell City to Jasper after eighth grade, said a Tell City friend told him afterwards that 'only Jasper baseball would get no-hit and still find a way to win.'

In the regional, Jasper beat Mt. Vernon, 11-1, then won semi-state matches against Crawfordsville, 6-1, and Whiteland, 5-0. The semi-state title was particularly sweet for Linette. As a freshman starter on Jasper's 2003 team that lost to New Palestine in the state semi-final round, Linette recalled making some key errors, popping up for the final out, then tearfully hugging his dad, Bill, and promising "we'll be back." Bill Linette said after the 2006 semi-state win that "Sam jumped on me and said 'we're going back!'"

The state final match-up with Norwell, 29-1, figured to be a pitcher's duel, but turned into a slugfest. Norwell's ace, Jarrod Parker, had a 0.76 ERA, a 95 mile-per-hour fastball, and was a year away from being the ninth overall pick in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Jasper countered with pitchers J.T. Stenftenagel, 12-0 with a glittering 0.59 ERA, and Adam Klatka, who Litherland termed a "fiery, scrappy ballplayer." Mehringer remembered Stenftenagel and Klatka being "lights out all year." Both staffs had an impressive ratio of low walks to a high number of strikeouts. Yet Gobert was wary. He knew the home plate umpire had a tight strike zone. Also knowing that pro prospect Parker was on a pitch count, the Cats worked all week on not chasing anything off the plate.

Game day started ominously when Litherland realized on the bus ride to Victory Field that he had left his jersey at the hotel. The jersey was retrieved, and Gobert later lightened the mood at their lunch stop by walking to a nearby White Castle and returning with a couple of sliders for Litherland. "That was comic relief on that day," said Mehringer. "It worked out fine."

Norwell jumped out to a 2-0 lead. Parker struck out three of Jasper's first four batters, including Litherland, who hit cleanup and had a team-leading .469 average. "I had never seen a pitcher throw that fast," said Litherland. But Jasper remained disciplined. In the bottom of the second, Josh Sermersheim drilled the first of his three hits, shortstop Nick Seger followed with a single, and Mehringer laced a double to tie the score. "It was pretty awesome standing on second base and seeing our crowd so ecstatic over our third base dugout," said Mehringer. "That's why I think the nerves were calm after that. To tie it right away was a big moment."

In the top of the third, Seger made a diving, outstretched catch in shallow left field that further fueled the Jasper crowd. Katter and Linette singles then put Jasper up, 4-2.

Jasper walks helped Norwell score five in the fourth inning to take a 7-4 lead. In the bottom, freshman Ian Boone doubled, and Katter doubled to make it 7-5, knocking Parker out of the game. Klatka later singled to make the score 7-6. So Jasper had scored six earned runs off Parker, after he had given up only six the entire season.

Norwell took advantage of Jasper errors in the fifth inning to go up, 11-6. Mehringer came in to pitch that inning. He had last pitched in the sectional and had only hurled 13-2/3 innings all season. But his strong friendship with Linette helped. "Sam just told me, 'Now we got to go,'" said Mehringer. In the bottom of the inning, Litherland blasted a one-hop double off the 415 sign to tie Scott Rolen's single-season record of 18 doubles. "When the ball came off the bat, I thought, why did I swing at that, because it was up in the zone," said Litherland. "I thought it was a fly ball out, but then I saw the center fielder sprinting after the ball." He later scored on Seger's single, although the throw easily beat him to the plate. "I guess I hit the catcher just right with my slide because he dropped the ball. He was right in the base path. If he had held onto the ball, I would have been out."

In the top of the sixth, Mehringer gave up a home run to the pitcher who had replaced Parker, Jamie Feldheiser, to put Norwell up 12-7. It was Feldheiser's third hit of the year. He was a .143 hitter. "When Sam tossed me another ball after the home run, I looked at him, shrugged, and smiled," said Mehringer. "Like, what can you do? We have to move on, we know we're still in this, throw strikes. We still joke about that homer." Said Linette, "That was a moment where you almost felt like it's just not your time to win. Gobert could have been mad, but he just gathered us in front of the dugout and said it's time to play slow-pitch softball, we just have to outscore them." "That got us fired up, gave us some hope," said Litherland. "I can't believe how it all unfolded after that." With four outs to go, Jasper was still behind, 12-8. Norwell brought in a left-hander to face Litherland and Josh Sermersheim, both left-handed batters. Litherland singled on the first pitch to left field to make it 12-9. "I should have hit it over the fence because it was a fastball right into the wheelhouse. Then Josh, who had an awesome game, doubled on a bomb to right field to make it 12-10."

Second baseman Boone turned a key double play to end the top of the seventh. "That was enormous," said Linette. "For a freshman, that was huge. And he doubled twice in big spots. It wasn't too big for him. So we felt we actually had the momentum, which might sound weird, being down two."

Mehringer, who pitched the final three innings, was the first batter in the bottom of the seventh. As he approached the plate, he said the umpire told him, 'Nice job coming in, those two were throwing heat, and you came with that off-speed stuff, you really threw them off.' Mehringer fell behind 0-2, then took a curve ball that barely missed. "Most guys will say it was probably strike three," said Mehringer. "It was close, but it was high." Mehringer then singled, and Boone followed with his second double. Leadoff hitter Derek Katter, with three hits already, was walked. Klatka flied out to center. Linette then grounded into what appeared to be a game-ending double play. But as Katter was forced out at second, his slide disrupted the second baseman's throw to first, which bounced in front of the first baseman and went into the stands. Two runs scored to make it 12-12 and Linette went to second. "When I hit the ground ball, I thought, not again, I can't be the last out again," said Linette. "But Katter did his job, he really saved me." Litherland, who was on deck, said, "I thought, 'You can't make this up, this is crazy.' Katter made an incredible slide. I couldn't believe how loud the crowd was. My helmet was almost rattling. Then they intentionally walked me. I was furious. I tossed the bat to Josh Sermersheim and said, 'It's in your hands.' Josh was locked in, he looked me right in the eye and said, 'I got this.'" Sermersheim rifled his third hit into right field, and Linette steamed toward home for the possible winning run. The right fielder had already crept in for a shorter throw to the plate. In the stands, Linette's dad, Bill, said, "When Sam came around third, people were going, 'Oh, he's dead.'" Sam later received a photo that showed he hadn't hit third yet and the fielder had the ball. The one-hop throw was on line, but not hard, so the catcher took a couple steps forward to grab the ball. That gave Linette time to touch the plate with his outstretched left hand as the catcher spun around, dove, and swiped nothing but air, dramatically giving Jasper its fifth baseball state championship.

"We knew the right fielder did not have a good arm, but the play was a lot closer than I thought it would be," said Gobert. "Linette had a good instinct slide, and Katter was an explosive, aggressive baserunner."

"Many remember the last play, but many don't remember I had a horrible game," said Linette. "I tell that story a lot. You never know when one play is going to make the difference. I had a bad game, but it's about not pouting, it's about staying ready. I had one opportunity at the end, and it worked.

"It was pretty special with Luke on the mound at the end, for a kid to be told he wouldn't be able to pitch his senior year, and then he gets a win at state."

"They still scored runs off me," said Mehringer. "But our bats did the work. It never really dawned on us we were down five runs, we never really felt huge pressure. Although it didn't look good in the sixth inning. A lot of people still talk to me about how awesome that game was."

Norwell, behind Parker, was an undefeated state champion the next year.

Litherland, who knelt near home plate in tears of joy after the game while the players smothered Linette in a celebratory dogpile, said, "I hugged each coach afterwards and thanked them for how hard they pushed us to get to that moment. There's a reason why Jasper has been to more state finals than any other. The coaches prepared us for tough situations and taught us valuable life lessons."

Gobert noted the 2006 team was not the most dominant, "except for pitching got the job done, and they just found ways to win." He also said one of his favorite baseball moments was when former Jasper coach Ray Howard dressed out and joined the team in the dugout for the state championship game. It was also special for the players, particularly the seniors, whom Howard had worked so closely with. "When Norwell was thumping us by five, I told Ray, 'it's your fault, it's your curse,'" said Gobert, laughing at the memory. "He said, 'I'll leave in a heartbeat if you think it will help.' I said, 'Just stay here, it's not over.' When we won, I saw tears in his eyes. I knew that's the one thing he always wanted to get."




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