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BASEBALL SEMIS: Homer is back in the finals for the first time since ’06, after walk-off, extra-inning win over No. 1 Pewamo-Westphalia

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, June 14, 2019, 4:23 pm

EAST LANSING — It’s been a long road for Homer baseball to get back to the finals.

After dominating the lower divisions in the early 2000s, playing for three straight championships and winning two, the Trojans hadn’t been back to the semifinals since 2006 … until now.

Homer is back in the finals for the first time in 13 seasons after Jacob Wilson’s walk-off single delivered the No. 6-ranked Trojans a 2-1 win in nine innings over top-ranked Pewamo-Westphalia at Michigan State’s McLane Stadium Friday morning.

“To be the first team in 13, 12 years, feels great,” Wilson said. “Last year, we lost 1-0 before the regional championship, and we walked to the bus, and told our coach ‘We’re not done yet. Like next year, it’s not happening again. That’s what we’re going for.’”

Scott Salow, the longtime coach of the Trojans, remembers that conversation, admitting that was the first time he’d seen the drive of those returning players to get Homer back to the final weekend.

“Jacob and TJ (VanderKuyl), I remember walking back to that bus in regionals, after a 1-0 defeat at Buchanan, and they followed me to the bus, and the bus seemed like it was 100 miles away, and they said ‘This ain’t happening next year. This isn’t happening. Unfinished business.’ That’s been at the top of our practice plan, every single day, ‘Unfinished business,’” Salow said. “And we talked about it in the locker room this morning at 6 a.m. I said, ‘You’ve got a chance to play 14 innings of baseball to settle the business.’ And now we’re seven innings away from a state championship.”

The Trojans (32-3) will play No. 4 Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett (24-9) for the Division 3 title at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

It’ll be a special moment for a program that was very used to those kind of moments at Battle Creek’s Bailey Park, the former site of the baseball and softball finals.

From 2003-06, Homer lost just six of 149 games, setting a national record with 75 straight wins over the 2004-05 seasons.

That dynasty of teams was inducted into the Michigan Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016.

Last year’s team also broke the program’s own state record for consecutive scoreless innings with 48 straight, besting the previous mark of 44 set by the 2005 team (the mark was surpassed by Woodhaven later on the same season). The 2017 Homer staff also broke the 2006 team’s state record for team ERA, posting a mark of 0.78.

“We’ve talked about it. We were here (the finals) back in the early 2000s, and I got a chance to experience the highs of that, and you want that for all the teams that follow, just to experience what this is like,” Salow said. “For this group that kind of flew under the radar for most of the year, this is a group that graduated 10 seniors last year, seven of our pitchers off that staff. This team just finds a way. It’s not pretty sometimes — I think we had three errors on the board, a couple of passed balls, wild pitches, a few missed bunts — at the end of the day, we’re going to compete for a state championship tomorrow.”

It didn’t come easily. Coming off its first regional title and first appearance on the final weekend of the season since finishing runner-up in 1991, Pewamo-Westphalia came in having racked up its highest win total in the 35 years with Mark Rademacher on the bench, and only lost twice, to D1 power Grand Ledge, and their Central Michigan Athletic Conference co-champion, Portland St. Patrick, ranked No. 1 in D4 at the end of the regular season.

And P-W starter Brendan Thelen certainly kept the Trojans off balance, allowing just two hits in his 7.2 innings of work.

“Just survive. I don’t know how many chances they had with leadoff guys on. Seemed like we were fighting fires most of the game, especially in the middle innings on. Leadoff guys on. We talk often about first-pitch strikes and leadoff outs, but we didn’t do nearly enough today to prevent that,” Salow said. “On the flip side, at least until the last inning, we didn’t do much offensively to get guys on base. But to hold a team like that for nine innings to one run — that team wrecks the baseball.”

Both teams scored in the second inning, then nothing more for the next six.

Ethan Thelen reached on a dropped third strike, stole second, went to third on Jared Thelen’s single to left, and scored on Aaron Bearss’ RBI single to left.

Homer’s answer was a bit more complex.

Kyle Compton singled to center to lead off the bottom of the second, and was bunted over, took third on a fielder’s choice by Wilson, and scored when the Trojans pulled off a first-third set play.

“Yeah, we’ve spent a lot of time on our first-and-third plays, trying to put balls in play without the need of a bat. That’s a play that we practice all the time, and it worked out … almost to perfection. If my runner would’ve taken second base, instead of just standing in the middle, we’d have been better off,” Salow said, admitting the trail runner, Wilson, fell down on purpose to draw the defense’s attention. “Yeah, he did fall on purpose. He’s supposed to get a secondary (lead), and slip on the way back.”

Wilson and Brendan Thelen kept the game 1-1, until pitching limits removed both from the game. Wilson turned the game over to Zach Butters in the seventh, and the senior went the remaining 2.1 innings to get the win in relief.

He also led off the game-winning rally with a walk, moving to second on a single by Compton. Angelo Lerma beat out a sacrifice bunt attempt loading the bases, bringing Wilson to the plate.

“I’ve been batting pretty good all season, and my teammates really look up to me. I looked out there, saw everyone on base, and they were just looking at me, giving me thumbs-up, signaling I got this. So I just believed in my team, and let the bat do the work,” Wilson said. “I was just just trying to get it in. I knew that Zach would be able to score if I just hit it fair. Anything would work. Pop-up, grounder, anything.”

Butters scored easily, and the Homer bench emptied to dog pile on top of Wilson at first base.

It was a heck of a way for Salow to celebrate his 50th birthday.

“How about that, huh? My dad just said ‘I didn’t get you anything for your birthday, but I’ll take the win instead, and we’ll celebrate later.’ What a great run and what great community support. Sea of orange there earlier,” the coach said, admitting he wished for the outcome. “I did. We actually had a birthday lunch yesterday at school there, with 50 candles on the cake — in fact, I said it out loud. They said, ‘What do you want?’ And I said ‘One more run than the other team.’ And here we are.”

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DIVISION 3 SEMIS

Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett 5, Gladstone 0

EAST LANSING — Alex Azar tossed a two-hit shutout for No. 4 Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, as the Knights beat No. 13 Gladstone, 5-0, in Friday’s second D3 semifinal at Michigan State University’s McLane Stadium.

The Knights (24-9) are back in the D3 finals for the first time since 2016 — after opting up to Division 1 for two seasons. In those two years, they lost to the eventual state champ both times, falling to the Saline Hornets in the 2017 D1 semifinals.

From 2011 to 2016, the Knights played in five straight title games (three in D4, two in D3) winning three straight after losing to Decatur in the 2012 D4 finals.

Azar struck out 12 and walked none, allowing just two hits, a single by Carson Shea with two outs in the sixth, and a one-out double by Jared Crow in the seventh.

Liggett struck early, getting two runs in the first on Logan King’s home run to left. King made it 3-0 in the third when his groundout brought home Billy Kopicki, then a fourth run scored on a throwing error. Nick Post doubled in the final run in the third to make it 5-0.