By Pedro Velazco
Western’s baseball squad got off to an ideal start Saturday afternoon, scoring a pair of runs in the bottom of the first inning against No. 3 Norwell in their Class 3A Semistate game.
That good start was all Norwell would allow.
The Knights held Western scoreless the rest of the way and steadily took control, beating the Panthers 5-2 in front of a pro-Western crowd at CFD Investments Stadium in Highland Park.
Knights pitcher Josh VanMeter settled in after a rocky first and pitched a complete game. The Panthers got just two runners to third the rest of the game. VanMeter fanned a dozen batters.
“I think two things: They moved the ball better, they hit the ball better than we did,” Western coach Ty Calloway said. “Secondly, they had better control of their offspeed pitches. We were still throwing too many fastballs out because we weren’t getting our offspeed across. I think those were the two keys in the game. Their pitcher did a heck of a job. He’s not going to walk anybody.”
VanMeter, who was drafted by San Diego as a shortstop in the MLB draft on Friday, closed the game with the final assist, taking an easy grounder back to the pitcher.
He said getting the final out to get to state was “amazing, not as good as [getting drafted], but it felt pretty good. To do that next week would be even better, but for the ball to be in my hands to get the last out was perfect.”
Western started the game off with a bang, holding Norwell off the board after a double in the first, and pushing across two runs in the bottom of the frame. Marcus Pingleton led off Western’s half of the first with a single up the middle, and Evan Warden followed with a big bounce single to the left side. After a wild pitch, Pingleton scored on a ground out by Dakota LaMott, and Warden came home on a ground out by Devon Eaker.
“Western, for every year that I’ve played them, that my buddies have played them at Zionsville, they like to get off to a good start,” said Norwell coach Andy McClain, the coach at Brebeuf last season when Western beat the Braves for the state title. “They got those two runs and we said ‘OK, that’s it.’ Our kids are mentally tough, battle tested. After 35 ballgames already this year, they can handle adversity, they can handle pressure. They got theirs, and we were patient and got ours.”
Norwell scored a run in the top of the third when VanMeter, Nathan Shelton and Tailur Szarenski connected on three straight singles. The Knights took the lead in the top of the fourth with two runs. Austin Dettmer started the rally with a walk. A single by pinch hitter Reggie Hayes followed, and then Austin Dantzer and pinch hitter Jake Meyer connected with run-scoring singles for a 3-2 lead.
The Knights tacked on a run in the fifth when Szarenski, who had doubled, came home on a Dettmer single. Then Norwell closed the scoring in the seventh when VanMeter singled, moved up on a Shelton sacrifice, and scored on a double from Szarenski. Szarenski finished 4 for 4 with three doubles and a single.
Ronnie Smith started and threw six innings for the Panthers, taking the loss. Evan Warden threw the seventh.
“They can hurt you one through nine,” Calloway said of the Knights’ lineup, which got a dozen hits from seven different hitters. “There’s not a weakness in their lineup. It’ll take an awful good team to beat them. They’ve got a great shot [at winning state]. Anybody that hits the ball better than they do, I’d like to see them.”
VanMeter threw a complete game with a dozen strikeouts for Norwell. He gave up only four hits after the first inning. He didn’t walk a batter and hit two, with six hits allowed for the game.
“They’re a great team,” VanMeter said of Western. “I was leaving some balls up the first inning, but I was able to come back the rest of the way, locate my pitches, keep them off balance with my curveball, which was probably my best pitch [Saturday]. You’ve got to give credit to them, the first inning, they jumped on some fastballs. But I was able to settle down and locate my pitches.”
Norwell advances to next weekend’s state finals at Indianapolis’ Victory Field with a 32-3 record. The Knights will play Jasper (32-3) defeated Crawfordsville 11-1 in Saturday’s other 3A Semistate to punch its ticket to the state finals.
Pingleton doubled and singled to lead the Panthers. Warden singled twice. Eaker and Kyler Vail had Western’s other two hits.
Western, the defending Class 3A champion, closes with a 23-6 record, one game away from state. Calloway coached his final game with the Panthers. He’s stepping down at the close of the season.
“That was our goal, to try to get back,” Calloway said. “But as I tell [the players], you play 20 times and you could have 20 different winners. It gets down to simple things. You’ve got to have consistency up and down your lineup, and [Saturday] we didn’t have it. We saw an awful good pitcher. At times this year, we struggled a little bit with really good pitching.”