Trailing Northwestern by four runs in the bottom of the sixth inning, Kenton Ridge senior Chris Lyle never lost faith in his teammates.
“We don’t give up,” Lyle said. “Every single one of them was on the fence cheering.”
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With six outs remaining, Kenton Ridge scored four runs in the sixth inning to tie the game and walked off in the seventh on a single by senior Andrew Sharp to earn a 6-5 victory in a D-II district semifinal game on Tuesday evening at Urbana’s Bob Brenning Field.
Lyle, Calvin Dibert and Chase Marrs each had two hits for the Cougars (22-5), who advanced to the district finals for the third straight season. They’ll play Hamilton Ross (22-4) in a D-II district final at 5 p.m. Thursday at Carlisle High School. The Rams beat Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy 3-2 in a district semifinal game.
“I’m proud of our guys,” said Cougars coach Aaron Shaffer. “They kept fighting. We tell them you never run out of time, you run out of outs. If you keep fighting for all 21 outs, good stuff will happen.”
Northwestern’s Ben Van Noord had two doubles and Jansen Jenkins had two hits for the Warriors, who finished their season 12-16.
Northwestern took a 2-0 lead in the second inning and added two more runs in the third. They extended the lead to 5-0 on a bases loaded balk by Lyle.
“They had the momentum early,” Shaffer said. “We were kind of shell-shocked there. We had to regroup.”
Dibert walked to lead off the fifth and scored on a sacrifice fly by Garrett Kelly to make it 4-1.
“It was big just to get on the board,” Shaffer said. “We were able to get some runners on in the sixth and the hits started falling. … This is a veteran group. They don’t panic. We just chip away. We just tried to get some runners on and someone would get a big hit.”
With two runners on and one out in the sixth, senior Alex Ward smashed an RBI double to make it 5-2. Kaelen Lemen scored on a wild pitch to pull within two runs and Dibert followed with an RBI single, scoring Ward to make it 5-4. With two outs, senior Matt Tateman singled Dibert home to tie the game.
Lyle singled to lead off the seventh inning and then stole second base to put a runner in scoring position.
“I knew I had guys behind me,” said Lyle, who’ll play at Urbana University next season. “Any way I could get on base, I was going to try to find a way.”
With one out, Sharp hit a sharp ground ball to third base and Lyle scored on a throwing error to put the Cougars back in the district finals.
“It’s disappointing to come that far and the last couple innings just lose it there in that fashion when we were being the aggressor,” said Warriors coach Brad Olinger. “Our guys are young and inexperienced. Northwestern hasn’t been this far in awhile. It’s disappointing, but we’re proud of our kids.”
After starting the season 0-12, Northwestern won 12 of its last 16 games, finishing one win from the district tournament. The Warriors upset top-seeded Benjamin Logan 4-1 in the previous round.
“They stuck with it,” said Olinger, who took over the program this season after coaching last spring at Shawnee. “They didn’t die on us. We kept telling them they could’ve died on us and they didn’t. We kept learning little things and they were willing to take what we were giving them and say, ‘We’re going to try these new things’ and that was the learning process with a new coaching staff. That’s what we did today.”
The Cougars seek their first regional semifinal berth since they reached the state semifinals in 2008, Shaffer’s first season. They lost to CHCA 9-5 last season and fell to Waynesville 10-8 in 2017.
“It’s a good opportunity,” Shaffer said. “We’ve struggled the last few years. We know we’re going to play a good team whoever it is. You’re giving yourself a chance. It’s survive and advance. It doesn’t have to be pretty. You just gotta win.”
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