For the first time since 2001, the North Platte First Nationals juniors played in the Cornhusker League championship on Sunday in North Platte.
If there was any questions about if they belonged or if nerves would get the best of them, North Platte answered emphatically with a 4-1 victory over Lincoln East Carpetland in front of a big crowd at Bill Wood Field in North Platte.
The First Nationals (37-7) got a complete-game two-hit gem from starting pitcher Will Coe, who was backed up by great defense, including a slick double play to end the game.
With the district tournament up next, North Platte still has plenty of goals in front of them, but first-year juniors head coach Jace Barker reflected on what it means to hoist the Cornhusker League trophy.
“It’s a huge accomplishment,” he said. “These kids have been playing together since they were 8. They’re all best friends, they get along great and they push each other. That’s all I could ask for.”
Barker also hopes this changes the perception of baseball in western Nebraska, while also inspiring future generations of kids in the community to play baseball.
“North Platte doesn’t always get respect. Hopefully this opens some eyes,” Barker said. “North Platte baseball needs this and North Platte sports needs this. Numbers have been dropping a little in little league, so hopefully this is the turning point and we start to get more kids coming out.”
With hits hard to come by for both teams, North Platte’s biggest scoring output of the day came with a three-run second inning.
Tate Janas got things cooking against Lincoln East starter Ryan Cementi with a leadoff single, then stole second base. A Derrick Kuhlmann grounder put Janas in motion, and an errant throw to first sailed over the Lincoln East (28-12) first baseman’s head, allowing Janas to run home and give the First Nationals a 1-0 lead.
North Platte tacked on another run later in the inning on a one-out, bases-loaded RBI single off the bat of Coe for a 2-0 advantage. A bases-loaded walk by Jaylan Ruffin made it 3-0, before Lincoln East turned a double play to get out of the inning.
First Nationals catcher Bryce Butterfield gave North Platte a 4-0 lead in the third with an RBI single to score Kuhlmann, who had reached by getting hit.
Coe continued to cruise on the mound, getting a little help from his friends.
Butterfield made a phenomenal catch up against the fence for the final out of the fourth inning and Tyler Tobey recorded the last out of the fifth with a leaping grab. Tobey’s web gem limited the damage to just one run by Lincoln East, after they scored their lone run on a sacrifice fly from Jacob Rien.
Down to their last three outs, Lincoln East threatened in the seventh when Cooper Colon reached first after getting hit with one out. But, as he’d done throughout the afternoon, Coe put an end to the threat by getting Keegan Brink to ground to Kuhlmann who flipped to Trey Barker, then to Jeremiah Seamann at first base for the game-ending 6-4-3 double play.
“Oh my gosh, Will pitched amazing,” Barker said. “Not only did he strike people out, he also set our (defense) up. There were a lot of balls hit right to our guys. Derrick played a great shortstop today. Will threw great and the defense was spectacular.”
Coe finished a very efficient outing only expending 87 pitches — 59 for strikes — while allowing one unearned run on two hits, walking none and striking out three.
Clementi threw 3 2/3 innings for Lincoln East, allowing four runs — three earned — on four hits, walking five and striking out one. Grant Springer pitched a spotless 2 1/3 innings of relief, allowing no runs on no hits, walking none and striking out five.
North Platte outhit Lincoln East 4 to 2, with each team committing one error.
After the game, still wet from the impromptu ice-water bath from his team, Barker credited his group for their commitment to their craft.
“That’s been the most impressive thing. I’ve offered to give them a day off, and they want to practice. That’s been huge. I plan on a two-hour practice and it turns into three because kids want to stay and hit or stay and take ground balls. That’s how we got to this point,” Barker said. “This is their home and they love it. They don’t want to be at the lake, they want to be at the baseball field. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Next up for North Platte is the A-7 district tournament at Duncan Field in Hastings. The First Nationals are the No. 1 seed and will play the winner of Hastings and Lexington on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
“We’re going to go win districts. That’s our goal,” Barker said with a grin. “Since the beginning of the year, our goal has been to win districts and go to state, and we’re ready for that.”