By DEREK NOEHREN
With their backs against the wall and season on the line, the North Platte First Nationals seniors continued to fight on a night when on multiple occasions things didn’t go their way against Scottsbluff.
Sunday’s A7 Senior District Tournament matchup was originally scheduled for a 1 p.m. first pitch, but moved to 7 p.m. as players, coaches, parents and volunteers spent much of their day getting North Platte’s Bill Wood Field playable after heavy rains overnight.
From the first pitch, the intensity of the two teams and magnitude of what was at stake was apparent, and for good reason. For the winner, a berth in one of the two Class A state tournaments and the opportunity to keep playing in the district tourney. For the loser, the end to the season and for some the last time they’ll put on a First Nationals jersey.
In the end, third-seeded Scottsbluff (31-18) overcame seven errors — North Platte had four — and hung on to escape a late First Nationals (13-23) rally for a 7-5 victory. The win not only secures a spot at state, but also keeps them alive in districts where they will play second-seeded Kearney Runza on Tuesday. Runza lost 8-0 against top-seeded Hastings on Monday.
Down to their final three outs of the season and trailing 7-3 in the seventh inning, North Platte made things interesting.
Sam Malsbury led off the inning by hitting a hard chopper, busted it down the line, making it a very close play at first base. Malsbury, who thought he beat the throw, was called out by the first base umpire, drawing loud objection from the North Platte contingent. First Nationals head coach Ty Brockmoller had what looked like a fairly animated chat with the umpire, but in the end the call stood.
The next two North Platte batters — Carter Johnson and Ty Ferguson — reached on Scottsbluff’s seventh error and a hit-by-pitch from Scottsbluff hurler Paul Panduro. Gus Kreber brought both home with a two-RBI double to the gap in right-center field that two-hopped to the fence, cutting Scottsbluff’s lead to 7-5. However, Kreber was tagged out trying to stretch his double into a triple for the second out of the inning.
Representing North Platte’s last chance, Dolan Branch kept hope alive, squaring up a ball hit to almost the same spot as Kreber’s ball, also reaching the wall for a triple.
Braden Stiffler then walked, putting runners on the corners for pinch hitter Miles Morrell and his .320 batting average.
After working a 2-2 count, Morrell grounded to the second baseman, who flipped to the shortstop to record the final out and end North Platte’s season.
Although Sunday’s result didn’t go as hoped, Brockmoller talked after the game about his team’s fight and continued improvement throughout the season after starting the year 1-8.
“The last couple weeks, this team has really fought. We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Brockmoller said. “Even the last inning we could have folded and didn’t. We gave them everything we could.”
North Platte began the game with a 2-0 lead after benefiting from, two Scottsbluff errors, allowing Malsbury and Eli Cox to score.
Scottsbluff answered right back with two of their own against North Platte’s starting pitcher Malsbury on a North Platte error and a Harold Baez sacrifice fly, scoring Jack Jones.
Scottsbluff took its first lead at 3-2 on a sacrifice bunt, turned into a run because of a North Platte error on the throw, then the runner was able to score with nobody from North Platte covering home plate.
Another Scottsbluff error allowed Branch to score, tying the game at 3-3 in the top of the fourth.
Panduro gave Scottsbluff the lead for good in the bottom of the fourth with an RBI single for a 4-3 advantage.
Three walks and an error gifted Scottsbluff another run in the fifth, extending the lead to 5-3.
In the sixth, Jack Jones’ 1-out RBI double made it 6-3, and a Tate Carson sacrifice fly extended it to 7-3.
Despite a valiant effort in the seventh, North Platte came up a little short.
Malsbury, Carter Johnson, Avery Munson and Eli Cox all pitched for North Platte, combining to allow seven runs — three earned — on seven hits, walking seven and striking out six — four from Johnson.
Creighton Dike started and went four innings for Scottsbluff to earn the win. Dike gave up three runs — none earned — on three hits, walked none and struck out none.
Panduro closed it out, pitching the final three innings, allowing two runs — one earned — on three hits, walking two and striking out four.
Sunday’s win completes a three-game season sweep of North Platte.
With the finality of the season being over, the first-year head coach Brockmoller only wanted to show his appreciation for his players.
“Now that it’s over for this year, I’m just going to go tell the guys how much I love them and appreciate them.”