Lakeland Christian Advances To 2A State Finals
It’s been four years since the Lakeland Christian Vikings won the 2019 state championship, but the 2023 team is on the cusp of making history once again after a 3-0 semifinal win over the St. John Neumann Celtics Thursday afternoon.
Lakeland Christian never trailed in this game, but the Vikings needed every last ounce of offense it could get because of what happened at the end of the game. Facing a three-run deficit, Neumann loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the seventh. The Celtics had only mustered two hits over the other six innings of the game, but suddenly the winning run was stepping into the batter’s box.
A pop-up to shortstop invoked the infield fly rule to get a crucial first out for Lakeland Christian, and then the Vikings caught a break. A wild pitch ricocheted off the backstop to the catcher, Mitch Rodriguez, forcing the runners at second and third to retreat. The only problem was that Neumann’s runner on second base was already halfway down the line. Rodriguez picked him off, and reliever Anthony Schatz struck out the final batter of the game to win it.
“I knew it was going to be a dogfight,” Vikings manager Matt Diaz said. “I didn’t know it would come down to having the go-ahead run at the plate for a while in the last inning, that’s for sure, but they don’t quit. They don’t get blown out, and we’re blessed to come away with a win there.”
Strong outings from both starters made a low-scoring affair possible. Lakeland Christian’s Daniel Hartley held Neumann scoreless, despite walking four and allowing another four to hit safely. He forced the Celtics to get under the ball, retiring seven batters on pop-ups or flyouts.
“I kept the ball up in the zone,” Hartley said. “I have high spin on my fastball, so everything looks faster than it really is. I was trying to let them get themselves out and keep my pitch count low, but later in the game, I got a little tired.”
For Neumann, it was Tyler Kozera that held things down for 5 2/3 innings. He ended up taking the loss after giving up three runs (two earned) on seven hits and a walk, but the game was 1-0 for most of the afternoon.
Lakeland Christian finally got some separation when a pair of seniors buried in the second half of the lineup came up big for the team.
“If you look up and down our lineup, you’ll notice there’s not a ton of seniors that bat,” Diaz said. “But the big triple came from senior Wyatt Jenkins and the icing on the cake run came from Parker Galberaith, both of which hadn’t a whole lot to show during the game but came up huge.”
Diaz also made note of the first run of the day, when Jaxson Peacock hustled from second to home on a ground ball to short that was thrown away.
Neumann had come back from three-run deficits in the past, but the Celtics couldn’t find the winning formula on Thursday.
“That was high school baseball for you,” Celtics manager Charlie Maurer said. “We couldn’t get anything going. Obviously, kudos to their arm, but I feel like we had our opportunities and shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times.”
Maurer praised Kozera for his efforts, noting that Kozera gave the team a chance to win every time he took the mound.
It’s a disappointing end to a great run for the Celtics, but there’s little to hand their heads over. The only state championship in school history came in 1985, and this was the first regional title for the program.
“The support that we’ve received this year has been unbelievable,” he said. “From the community, and especially from the school. I mean, Sister Pat canceled school today. It’s been awesome, and they’ve been there the whole year.”