NUNDA — Keshequa knew it was in for a battle with No. 2 Notre Dame coming to town for Tuesday’s Class D1 final.
Well, that’s what they got.
The top-seeded Indians moved past the Irish to take home their first sectional championship since 2007, winning a back and forth affair, 12-6, behind a massive seven-run fifth inning.
Trailing 5-4 heading into the fifth, the Indians mounted a rally for the ages, compiling five hits and a walk during the frame to take a commanding 11-5 advantage heading into the sixth.
“They didn’t panic,” said Keshequa head coach Abijah Gath about his group. “There was no quit in these guys. A well-coached team in Notre Dame came in and gave us all we could (handle).”
The efforts of Class D1 player of the year, senior Riley Rease helped propel the Indians, as Rease pitched well in relief of Keshequa senior starter Jordon Luther who lasted just 1 1/3 innings, allowed two runs on four hits and a couple of walks. Rease entered and thwarted an Irish rally in the second inning and threw the final 5 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on six hits and two walks. He also recorded a strong day at the plate, finishing 1-for-4 with a double, an RBI and a run scored.
“He’s calming even to me sometimes,” said Gath about his senior star. “He’s just done it all year. He’s been a very calming force for us.”
There wasn’t much to be calm about while inside the friendly confines of Rymer Sports Complex on Tuesday, as this game featured plenty of drama.
Notre Dame seized an immediate, 2-0 lead off of Luther in the top of the first inning, but Keshequa quickly answered back to give itself a 3-2 advantage after two frames, and the battle was on.
Scoring the two early runs for the Irish were juniors Colin McCulley and Vin DiRisio, both of whom reached on singles, DiRisio’s single drove in McCulley, while DiRisio was driven in by a double off the bat of sophomore Bryceton Berry.
The Irish threatened again in the second, as they placed two runners on base with one out but came up empty as Rease came on to calm the storm for the Indians, recording the final two outs of the frame and keeping the two-run deficit intact.
“That was big,” said Gath about Rease’s work in the second inning. “That kept us in the game.”
As Keshequa came to bat in the bottom of the second, its bats began to come alive.
Senior Trey Learn got the rally going with a leadoff single, then senior Adam Hunt walked, and sophomore Nathan Thayer singled, scoring Learn from second as the ball was misplayed by Notre Dame junior right fielder Cody Henry. Senior Ryan Thayer then walked to load the bases.
The next batter was junior Tyler Mallaber, who worked a 2-0 count before Notre Dame head coach Rick Rapone asked for time and went to the mound to remove senior starter Gavin Schrader, who failed to record an out in the second.
Berry came on in relief of Schrader and induced a Mallaber fly-out to center field for the first out of the inning. Next up was senior Cesar Battle, who laid down a bunt that led to a Berry throwing error which allowed Hunt and Nathan Thayer to come around to score. When the dust settled, Keshequa had seized a 3-2 lead heading to the third inning.
“No matter what the inning or situation is, we know we’re going to come back somehow,” said Rease. “We just focused on putting the bat on the ball.”
The Indians would continue to find solid contact in the third inning, as two more base hits led to another run which increased their lead to 4-2.
A two-out single from Nathan Thayer got things started and was quickly followed by a single from Ryan Thayer. Both runners advanced on a wild pitch, and Nathan later came around to score on a fielding error made by Notre Dame freshman second baseman Jay Antinore.
Notre Dame got one back in the fourth as Henry led off the inning with a single, advanced to second on a Fitzpatrick walk and then came around to score on an RBI single off the bat of Schrader. Heading to the fifth, Keshequa clung to a 4-3 lead.
The Irish came out guns blazing in their half of the fifth, plating two runs to take a 5-4 lead into the bottom half of the inning.
DiRisio led off the frame with a double, stole third base and later came around to score on a wild pitch to tie the game. Notre Dame freshman Jaden Sherwood later walked and scored on an error made by Keshequa junior left fielder Kellen Wood to make it a two-run ND advantage.
Not to be outdone, Keshequa responded with a seven-run explosion in the bottom half of the frame to take the lead for good.
Learn got things going once again with a base hit, and Hunt followed suit. Nathan Thayer struck out for the first out of the inning, but then Ryan Thayer reached on an RBI single, driving in Learn from third base to tie the game at five. Next up was Mallaber, who pounded a two-run triple to the fence, scoring Hunt and Ryan Thayer to regain the lead for Keshequa, which turned out to be for good.
The double from Mallaber chased Berry and Fitzpatrick was next up in relief.
Senior Cesar Battle was up next and reached on a walk before Luther drove in Mallaber from third on a picture-perfect sacrifice bunt, which advanced Battle to third after he had taken second on defensive indifference. Battle later scored on an RBI single from senior Aidan Wood, who scored himself on an RBI double from Rease, who also came around to score on a wild pitch.
Two more runners would reach during the frame, but both would be left on base.
It didn’t matter, though, as Keshequa had already done enough to win the game, as they led 11-5 heading to the sixth inning.
The Irish came through with one run in the sixth, but Keshequa promptly answered during their half of the frame. The Indians’ late run forced Fitzpatrick from the game in favor of DiRisio, who came on in relief and recorded the final out of the sixth after hitting the first batter he faced.
“From the beginning of the season, we said the same thing. We just knew that this is how we wanted to finish the year for these (seniors),” said Coach Gath. “All the work they’ve put in all this time - soccer, baseball, we’ve got a sectional champion in wrestling, we’ve got a sectional champion in skiing. These guys have done everything for the community. Everybody loves them. Everybody knows they’re going to come in when it’s game time and finish it off, and they did tonight. They did just what we’ve told them to do - enjoy every out and work your way to the end.”
Learn paced the Indians’ attack, recording a 3-for-5 night which included two runs scored. Aidan Wood finished the game 2-for-5 with a run scored, while Nathan Thayer finished with a couple of hits, a couple of RBI and a couple of runs scored. Ryan Thayer also collected a couple of hits, an RBI and a run scored. Hunt and Luther each scored two runs apiece for Keshequa.
McCulley, Schrader and DiRisio each had two hits for Notre Dame (14-5). Schrader went one inning, allowed three runs on two hits, walked three and struck out one, while Berry went 3 1/3, allowed five runs on five hits and two walks while striking out six. Fitzpatrick hurled 1 2/3 innings, allowed three runs on four hits and one walk while striking out two.
“We kept the same motto that we’re the number one seed for a reason - we don’t lose one game all year out of luck,” said Aidan Wood. “I know there are a couple of guys that get highlighted, but it’s really one through nine and even 10, 11 and 12 guys put in the effort, and we stuck together as a team.”
Nine out of 10 Indians’ batters (one pinch hitter) recorded base hits in the win over Notre Dame.
Keshequa (16-1) will be forced to say goodbye to eight seniors from its 2021 championship squad, along with Gath, who is stepping away from his role as head coach.
“I’m going to miss it a ton,” said Gath. “This is a family move. I’ve got young kids, and I need to be with them.”
Gath says leaving the program after a sectional title win is something he could have never imagined when he took over the program four years ago.
“My first year, we went 4-17, and I was like, this is a little rougher than I thought,” said the Indians’ head coach. “Then this group came in, we win the league my second year, we didn’t get to play last year, and they just came in with all cylinders firing this year.”
For Rease and company, it won’t be easy leaving their high school baseball career behind, but they will take solace in the fact that they helped bring an entire community together during such a unique, challenging year.
“It’s great to have everyone else with us. Kids that don’t even go to our school were here tonight,” added Aidan Wood. “The semis it was a huge turnout, (the Keshequa softball sectional final win) was a huge turnout. But it wasn’t comparable to the crowd we had here tonight.”
Gath says that the entire community will miss this year’s senior class.
“I couldn’t put into words how much we’re going to miss this senior group across the board,” he said. “You’re not going to find a better group of kids. The parents raised them well. They’ve worked hard and done everything you can ask of them in life - not just the game. They’re going to leave a big hole to fill next year and going forward.”