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Huntington North survives scare at Southwood

FLIP: Huntington North’s Elliot Lesperance flips the ball to first during the Vikings’ game against Southwood on Friday.

BY JACOB RUDE - sports@h-ponline.com

WABASH — When Collin Landrum reeled in the final out of Friday’s baseball battle at Southwood, the reaction from his teammates did not match the quality of the play.

The senior center fielder scaled the fence to rob Southwood’s Carson Rich of a walk-off homer to preserve a 5-4 victory for the Vikings. But on a night 24 hours removed from clinching a share of the Northeast 8 Conference (NE8) title, the reaction was rightfully subdued.

The Knights raced out to an early lead and forced the Vikings into a comeback in order to extend their win streak to 20 games. But it was hardly Huntington North’s finest effort in the victory as Southwood, a Class A team who entered the night with a 5-10 record, pushed the Vikings to the limit on the night.

“We did start slow,” Huntington North head coach Jarod Hammel said. “I really don’t think we overlooked Southwood. They played us tight last year. Coach (Warren) Dailey always has his guys ready to play. When you’re getting some attention in the state and making a little bit of noise, everybody brings their best. I completely credit Southwood tonight for coming and competing and they really barreled up some balls against our quality pitchers. Lots and lots of credit goes to Southwood for their performance.

“We do have a lot to clean up on our end,” Hammel added. “Defensively, we need to sharpen up some. Fields change in May. They get harder and drier and hops aren’t necessarily as friendly as they are early in the spring when things are softer. Defense used to kind of be our edge and now it’s been neutralized a little bit in the conditions that we’ve playing in. But that’s the same for everybody. That’s not to make an excuse. We need to get back to some things defensively.”

Offensively, Huntington North finished with just six hits on the night, but took full advantage of a trio of Southwood errors, plating a pair of unearned runs on the night.

“We took a lot of fastballs tonight that I felt like the Vikings normally need to barrel up,” Hammel said. “We’ve got some work to do, but ultimately we’re really excited and looking forward to a good week of baseball next week setting us up for a strong tournament.”

Southwood had Huntington North on the back foot nearly the entire contest, starting with an RBI triple from Tristan Hayslett in the bottom of the second inning.

The third inning, though, is when the Knights struck loudest as, after a single from Mason Yentes, Carson Rich lifted an 0-2 pitch over the right field fence for a two-run homer, opening up a 3-0 lead.

The Knights would allow the Vikings back into the game with a throwing error in the fourth inning on a two-out grounder to third, allowing Ian McCutcheon to score from second.

It wouldn’t be until the fifth inning before the Vikings mounted a serious rally. Trey Williams would lead off the inning with a double before another error, this from Clayton Wells, gave Huntington North its second run of the game.

Logan Moreland extended the rally with a bunt single to put runners on the corners with one out. Moreland would break for second in the next at-bat and the throw would sail into center field, allowing Levi Bennett to tie the game at 3-3.

Huntington North took its first lead of the night one batter later as Ian McCutcheon singled into left to bring Moreland in to score.

The guests carried the lead into the sixth inning before a two-out single from Wells brought Hayslett to the plate. The freshman would hit a hard chopper to short that took a high hop and cleared Viking shortstop Zach Daugherty and bounced into left field, allowing Wells, who had stolen second in the at-bat, to score and tie the game at 4-4.

Huntington North, however, responded right back in the top of the seventh. Williams would again leadoff the inning with a double before being sacrificed to third. Logan Moreland would bring Williams in to score with a sacrifice fly to center, giving the guests a one-run cushion once again at 5-4.

The Vikings then turned to their closer McCutcheon to close out the contest. The senior made quick work of the first two batters of the inning, getting a flyout from Cameron Ball before striking out Tanner Hartley.

Yentes would draw a nine-pitch walk to bring up Rich who, on the second pitch of the at-bat, drilled a long flyball into center field. Landrum would race back to the fence before reaching up and over the top of the fence to pull the ball back into play for the final out of the contest.

Williams finished 3-for-3 with two runs in the win, the only Viking with multiple hits on the night. Elliot Lesperance earned the win on the mound, going six innings and allowing six hits and four runs with five strikeouts and a walk.

McCutcheon earned the save, striking out one in an inning of work.

For Hammel, the slow start on the night proved to be a teaching moment for his side as they near postseason play.

“We’ve had that conversation before just about the game shrinking on you,” he said. “A seven-inning game goes very, very fast when you have many poor at-bats in a row. I don’t want to say these guys needed a wake up call, but I think it was a good type of game for us to experience as a team and talk our way through. This is how we respond and this is what it feels like for the game to shrink on you and…to be counting outs. It’s not a fun situation to be in. It wasn’t fun today. We feel a little bit like we escaped this place and not necessarily that we ended with a win, but we escaped a burning building basically.”

The mood was drastically different one night prior on Thursday on the road at Norwell.

In that contest against the Knights, who entered with a 4-0 record in NE8 play like the Vikings, Huntington North fell behind 1-0 before exploding for four runs in the third to earn a 5-1 win.

The third-frame rally started with back-to-back singles from McCutcheon and Lesperance. An error on the play allowed McCutcheon to score before an intentional walk to Jarret Gray put two on.

After a double steal moved both runners into scoring position, Bennett walked to load the bases before Keegan Bartrom was hit by a pitch to bring in a run.

Williams capped off the rally with a double into right center, scoring both Gray and Bennett.

The Vikings tacked on another run in the fifth on a wild pitch from Caden Mann that allowed Bennett, who opened the inning with a walk, to score.

The trio of Williams, Gage Sandlin and Zach Daugherty limited the Knights to one run on the mound in the win. Williams started the contest, going two innings and allowing four hits, one run and one walk with a strikeout.

Sandlin earned the win, going three innings and giving up three hits and three walks with three strikeouts. Daugherty pitched the final two innings without allowing a hit and striking out one.

McCutcheon went 3-for-4 on the night with a run while Williams knocked in two.

The win guaranteed a share of the NE8 title for the Vikings, their first since the conference was founded in 2016. While Hammel’s crew is happy with the feat, bigger goals are still in mind for the Vikings.

“It’s really cool to win a share of the title. But we want the whole thing,” Hammel said. “We don’t want to share it with anybody. We think it’s a crime that Viking baseball hasn’t yet won a (Northeast 8 Conference) championship and we hope to be the team that finishes that this year. The NE8 is very competitive and we’re excited to be at the top of it right now.

“We have to go through a tough New Haven club next week. We’ve got some great baseball opponents to end our year with. We’re going to find out what we’re made of and no doubt learn some lessons along the way. But I like the direction we’re heading even after (Friday night). I think we’re headed a healthy place.”

Huntington North will first have a contest with a Carroll side receiving votes in the latest Class 4A poll on Monday on the road at 6 p.m. before meeting New Haven on the road at 5 p.m. on Tuesday.