AZUSA, Calif. –- Good teams exact a price for mistakes, and there is no arguing that Lewis-Clark State is a good team.
The NAIA’s No. 1-ranked Warriors took advantage of 3 key defensive miscues to score 5 bonus runs and then held off a late surge to beat No. 2 Azusa Pacific, 15-11, to win the NAIA West Coast Super Regional, 2 games to 1.
Lewis-Clark State scored 4 runs in 3 different innings and by the top of the sixth was up 15-3. First baseman Ikaika Lester, who missed much of the season with injury, is rounding into midseason shape just in time for the NAIA World Series. He capped an outstanding super regional by going 2-for-5 in tonight’s title game with 6 RBIs. He crushed a 2-out, 3-run home run in the first inning to give the Warriors a 4-0 lead, but it was his 2-out lazy fly ball to right in the fourth inning that may be have been more crucial in the scheme of play.
After the Cougars had intentionally loaded the bases by giving a free pass to NAIA Player of the Year candidate Beau Mills, Azusa Pacific pitcher Brad Boekestein seemingly induced an inning-ending fly ball off Lester’s bat. However, as Cougar second baseman Grant Beyer and right fielder Eddie Crespo converged, neither player took charge nor properly communicated with one another and the ball fell behind a charging Crespo, allowing Zach Evangelho and Brent Wyatt to score and push the Warrior advantage to 8-3.
The Cougar defense failed again in the next inning. After Warrior catcher Jessie Mier led off the frame with his seventh home run of the season, Ryan Wholey and Jesse Roehl followed with back-to-back singles. Mark Thompson intended on moving his Warrior mates over on a sacrifice, but when Beyer failed to cover first, Thompson found himself with a gift single and the bases were loaded. Wyatt followed with a ground ball to first base that Brice Cutspec misplayed, allowing Wholey to come home, and when Cutspec gathered the loose ball, he underhanded it to no one covering first, giving Roehl a free jaunt to the plate at well. Thompson eventually came home on Lester’s sacrifice fly to center.
“We’ve been good defensively all year,” said Cougar coach Paul Svagdis. “I don’t think we tightened up, it was just the way the game fell out tonight.”
Cutspec made amends in the bottom half of the sixth and ignited another Cougar comeback, similar to the one they put together in game one of this super regional. With one out, he launched his 18th home run of the season, a 3-run opposite field shot to left-center that drew the public ire of Warrior coach Ed Cheff, who found his way to the mound to voice his displeasure at the pitch before Cutspec had ever reached third base.
The Cougars tacked on 3 more runs, all unearned, in the bottom of the seventh, first on Stephen Vogt’s double to left-center that plated Galen Komo, and then 2 more on Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ ninth home run of the season, to get Azusa Pacific within striking distance at 15-9.
“We have real good senior leadership,” said Svagdis. “Our guys didn’t panic. Their attitude was real positive, even when we were down a lot, and they remained determined.”
Chef turned to his closer Brian Parker to finish off the final 2 innings, and after Johnny Soberal greeted Parker with a double down the leftfield line, Parker struck out the next 2 Cougars before getting Matt Venegas to fly out to deep center to end the eighth and in essence dim the hopes of a completed Cougar comeback.
All that remained for the ninth inning were the last home at-bats for 4-year Cougar legends Vogt and Scott Hodsdon, and neither disappointed the home crowd. Vogt lined a single to the opposite field in his final at-bat, and Hodsdon followed with a 2-run home run down the right field line, his school-record 25th of the season, giving the Cougars 11 runs. Azusa Pacific is the only team to score 10 or more runs of L-C State all year, and the Cougars reached double digits in all 3 super regional games.
After the Hodsdon blast, Parker settled down, retiring 2 of the next 3 Cougars to preserve the victory and give the super regional automatic berth into the NAIA World Series to Lewis-Clark State. Azusa Pacific will still go to the series, receiving the first of 3 available at-large berths.
“We’re going into the World Series confident,” said Svagdis. “This result won’t dictate our attitude next week. Confidence comes from being prepared. Our guys have already done it. They have already played the best around here. They’ve had to bang heads 7 times with Concordia, 5 times with Biola, and 4 times with Cal Baptist, and those are some very, very good teams.”
Wyatt led L-C State’s 16-hit attack with a 3-for-6 performance that produced 3 RBIs. Thompson was 3-for-4 with 2 RBIs, 2 runs and a stolen base. Seven different Cougars enjoyed multiple-hit contests with Vogt leading the way with a 4-for-5 effort to raise his season average to a whopping .488.
With the victory, Lewis-Clark State returns home for the World Series with a 53-5 record, while Azusa Pacific heads to Lewiston, Ida., at 50-8.