SYRACUSE — NorthWood pitcher Alec Holcomb fielded a bunt in the seventh inning from Angola’s Ryan Brandt, and hesitated. Holcomb looked to third, started to throw, but then pulled back and threw to first base, but not before Brandt arrived safely ahead of the ball.
It was the first moment of indecision shown by the Panthers’ star pitcher in what had been a near perfect game. Holcomb had held the Hornets to only a single hit entering the seventh inning, but the play proved to be an ominous sign of what was to come.
Following Brandt’s single, senior Aaron Chao scored on David Frank's fielder's choice grounder to shortstop, Brandt scored on Owen Shoup's squeeze bunt and Frank found home plate on a passed ball. The Hornets tallied four of their five hits in the inning as they defeated the Panthers, 4-2, to win the Class 3A Wawasee Sectional title.
“Holcomb is a heck of a pitcher, and we talked about just learning from him every time we’re up there,” Angola coach Roger Roddy said. “We finally figured it out.”
A double by Chao scored the Hornets’ first run of the game, sending Chase Soulliere home from first base.
“I was expecting a slider, since he hadn’t thrown me a fastball all day,” Chao said. “He threw me one right down the middle and I just drove it.”
The inning capped a wild two-game stretch in which the mental strength of this team was tested again and again. Following a back-and-forth shootout with the host Warriors, Monday’s game provided a different kind of challenge.
It featured one of the better pitching matchups you will see in the northern half of the state, and a game in which Angola’s offense looked dead in the water until the very end.
Holcomb entered the game with a 1.36 earned run average, 66 strikeouts and a 4-2 record in only nine games this season, while Chao was undefeated, 9-0, in his starts and totaled 116 strikeouts along with a 0.51 ERA.
“We just had to keep our confidence up in the dugout,” Chao said. “Just kept reminding people that we can hit him, he’s very hittable, and we ended up doing just that.”
Four innings went by until either team recorded a hit. Chao was the first to yield on a single by Holcomb.
The Hornets’ ace entered the game undefeated. A tactician, Chao strives to be perfect every time he takes the mound. But when Holcomb tallied the game’s first hit, his Panthers already held the lead thanks, in part, to uncharacteristic mistakes by the Hornets’ star.
Chao walked Jack Wysong in the first inning (just Chao’s 20th in 27 games), and Wysong later scored on a sacrifice fly. In the fifth, Chao made an errant throw to first base after fielding a bunt, allowing Holcomb to score.
“These games are just different. You do get butterflies in your stomach and it’s hard to keep your calm on the mound, especially when everyone is looking at you,” Chao said. “Every mistake you make is magnified because the margin for error is razor thin.”
This, in part, made Chao’s score in the seventh a redemption of sorts, as much as anything else.
“Aaron’s our horse, and if we are going to win, it’s because he showed up,” Roddy said. “And today he did, both on the mound and at the plate.”
For the game, Chao struck out 11 batters while allowing three hits.
Amidst a mob of fans, friends and family, Angola basked in the ambiance of its first sectional title in six years near the third base line of Wawasee’s field. The win was big for reasons that extend far beyond a seventh-inning comeback.
For starters, NorthWood eliminated the Hornets from playoff contention a year ago in a 4-3, eight-inning loss. In addition, some members of the team have now won sectional titles in football, basketball and baseball in the same year.
When you add it all up, Roddy said he hopes it starts to add to the luster of his program.
“NorthWood is a great team, and I don’t even know how many times they’ve won this sectional,” Roddy said. “But hopefully our program gets that same level of respect now.”
The Hornets advance to the Garrett Regional on Saturday, and a matchup with Jay County at 11 a.m. The Patriots won the Bellmont Sectional with a 6-0 win over Marion.