COLUMBUS — The battle continues.
Thanks to some defensive greatness, a gritty performance on the mound, and more timely hitting the Wapakoneta Redskins are playing for the first team state championship in school history.
Wapakoneta advanced to the Division II title game with a 3-2 win over the West Holmes Knights (23-7) in a semifinal matchup Thursday morning at Huntington Park in Columbus.
“I probably sound like a broken record saying we battled out there,” Redskins baseball coach Jason Brandt said. “But our motto is, ‘Win the battle.’ And that was a battle today.”
The Redskins (25-5) will face defending state champions Columbus St. Francis DeSales (25-6) in the final at 10 a.m. Saturday at Huntington Park.
Junior center fielder Caleb Zwiebel sealed the Redskins’ win with an incredible diving catch for the final out of the game.
With two outs and the tying run on third in the bottom of the seventh inning, West Holmes shortstop Keaton Leppla lifted a sinking line drive into center field.
Zwiebel charged and made the diving catch. He rolled over, glove held high in the air for all to see. When the out was signaled, Zwiebel threw the ball, then his glove, into the air and raced towards the infield as his teammates swarmed him.
“Off the bat I thought it was going to die down and be in the gap,” Zwiebel said. “But after I got closer, I’m like I can dive and catch this. So I dove after it and I caught it. It was an awesome feeling.”
Ironically, the hero of the semifinal game likely won’t be in the lineup for the championship game. Zwiebel starts in center field only when Johnny Crawford is pitching, as he was on Thursday.
“I can’t say enough about Caleb,” Brandt said. “Because he’s not an everyday player. But he’s a defensive specialist and he’s a gem. Two nice plays, a great relay throw. Unbelievable job for Caleb out there.”
The catch wasn’t Zwiebel’s only great defensive play of the game. Nor was he the only Redskins player stealing hits and runs from the Knights.
Shortstop Josh Apple made three big plays and teamed up with Zwiebel to kill one West Holmes threat in the sixth inning.
With runners on first and second with no outs, West Holmes catcher Cody Dial lifted a fly ball to Zwiebel in center. The runner on second, Leppla, tagged and ran to third. Zwiebel fired a strike to Apple, who relayed it to Marshall Gerlach at third, who put the tag on Leppla for the double play.
But the inning wasn’t over. After a Dillon Baird single the Knights had runners on second and third with two out. Third baseman Levi Jones then hit a hard grounder toward left field. Apple snagged the ball deep in the hole, spun, and gunned down Jones at first to end the threat.
“I give Wapakoneta credit,” West Holmes coach Kurt McDowell said. “They made all the plays they needed to make. The shortstop took three balls away from us in the hole that should have been base hits. And obviously the center fielder with his throw and his catch at the end.
“We got here by being aggressive on the bases. We continued to and they made the plays they needed to make.”
Crawford pitched a complete-game, six-hitter for the win, upping his record to a perfect 10-0 on the season. The two runs and six hits both matched season highs for the junior left-hander. He struck out five and walked three.
“Johnny battled,” Brandt said. “After the game I gave him a big hug and I told him, ‘Thanks for being a battler out there today.’ Because he did not have his best stuff. He was a little wild with his off-speed pitches, which he hasn’t been all year. His fastball was still in the mid-80’s. But he just didn’t have a couple things going, off-speed-wise.
“But that’s why he’s 10-0. He wouldn’t be 10-0 if he wasn’t a competitor out there.”
The Knights jumped on Crawford early, taking a 1-0 in the bottom of the first inning.
Left fielder Mason James led off with a single, then scored on second baseman Vayden Ward’s triple into the corner in right field.
Wapakoneta tied the game in the fourth. Brandon Schreiber singled to left with one out, moved to second on a base hit up the middle by Gerlach, and scored on Dom Campos line-drive single into center.
One inning later, the Redskins took the lead.
Alex Koch led off with an infield single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Apple. Crawford then doubled to right to score Koch from second.
Batting ninth in the order, Campos then keyed a two-out rally in the sixth that proved to be the game winner.
With two outs he lined another single up the middle. Koch singled to right to advance Campos to third. And Apple drove in Campos on an infield single.
“I just went up there and looked first-pitch fastball like I’ve always done,” Campos said. “I made some contact and my teammates brought me in.”
Said Brandt, “The two balls that he hit hard today were as hard of hit balls [as he’s had all year]. Usually he’s a little Punch-and-Judy hitter. But he hit two solid line drives. You like to have that guy in the 9 hole that can get it started for your top of the lineup again. Dom definitely did that for us.”
Apple went 3 for 3 with an RBI. Campos was 2-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored. Koch went 2 for 4 with a run scored. Gerlach was 2-for-4.