The wind was still blowing out when Grandville slugger Jake Garbarino walked to the plate with a man on first and two out in the bottom of the seventh inning. Garbarino, headed to Northwestern University next year to continue his baseball career, was at the end of a difficult day, held in check by WO pitching to that point. But that could turn around with one swing. The Panthers led 4-3. And the wind was howling.
On the mound, Sr. Jacob Duckworth was well aware of Garbarino’s power. Duckworth fed him a mix of diving curveballs and moving fastballs. Predictably, Garbarino did not go down easily, eventually ripping a skidding ground ball to the right of Sr. shortstop Joe Miller, who glided to the ball, picked it smoothly, then fired a strike to Sr. second baseman Christian Rodino for the final out. And, more importantly, for a doubleheader sweep of Grandville and an OK Red Conference Championship.
This was a day for making history. West Ottawa had last won a conference championship ten years earlier. It also was a day for making memories.
Surely, fans and players alike will remember the final out and the ensuing celebration along the first base line.
Those in attendance also will remember the second out of the inning. Grandville speedster Brian Capiello was on first. With a two-strike count on Bailey Peterson, Capiello took off. The pitch was high. Sr. catcher Nick Govert stood to receive the pitch and smoothly fired a bullet to the right side of second base. The ball took a quick skip before the bag, but Miller picked the short hop and set the tag in front of the bag just as Capiello arrived. Two outs. Ironically, on the bus ride to the game, Govert predicted that he would “never throw out Capiello.”
Fans and players might look back to the top of the seventh, when the Panthers broke the 3-3 tie. Duckworth continued his hot hitting to start the inning with a solid single. Miller executed a perfect bunt, moving Duckworth over to second. Then, with two outs, Sr. right fielder Houston Bedford lined a single up the middle past a diving shortstop. Duckworth was off on contact and hit third as the center fielder scooped up the ball, immediately firing to home. Duckworth dove head first to the plate, and in a cloud of dust, scored the go-ahead run.
Moments of stellar defense also will stay with Panther players and fans. With one out in the seventh inning of the first game, Grandville was threatening a comeback. Down 9-3, Grandville had the bases loaded with one out. The batter popped a short fly ball up into the wind toward shallow right-center field. Sr. center fielder Tate Strobel got a great jump on the ball, but he had a lot of grass to cover. With about 15 feet to go, Strobel seemed to speed up before diving for the catch. Fans waited breathlessly as Strobel tumbled then held up his mitt with the ball inside.
Only two innings earlier, Miller and Jr. first baseman Brennan Lane combined for a spectacular play. With a Grandville runner on third and two outs, Miller fielded a one-hop shot to his left with a perfect dive. He scrambled quickly up to one knee and fired the ball to first. The throw was impressively powerful but off line, pulling Lane far to his right. Lane shifted his footing on first, then stretched to backhand the short hop for the third out.
As far back as the first inning of the first game, Panthers made memories. Sr. Gary Tomcala came in as a relief pitcher with one out in the bottom of the first. After allowing one inherited run to score, Tomcala gained control of his curveball and carved up the Bulldog batters, recording strikeouts for the final two outs of the inning and preserving a 5-2 lead.
That lead was built in the memorable top half of the first. Bulldog pitcher Grant Hamil initially struggled to find the strike zone, but when he did, Panther batters put some great swings on the ball. Both Govert and Bedford hammered RBI doubles to the fence as part of the inning that set the tone for the day.
The players themselves might value a memory that goes a little further back, to a post-game pep talk from Head Coach Matt Naber after a late April loss to East Kentwood. Naber remained confident, telling the team that all they had to do was sweep Rockford and then Grand Haven to put themselves in position to win the conference. Naber’s confidence was uplifting, but no one in the program could remember ever sweeping a season series with Rockford. But then it happened the following week. And a sweep of Grand Haven followed.
With the wins over Grandville, the Panthers ran their overall record to 22-8 and 11-3 in the OK Red.
WO once again faces Grandville on Wednesday for the final regular season game, then plays at home against Hamilton on Friday afternoon to begin a weekend tournament. The District Tournament begins the following Saturday in Jenison with a rematch against Grandville.