Basseball: Valparaiso slugs its way to a sectional championship winValparaiso storms the field after winning the Merrillville 4A Sectional Title at Merrillville High School on May 28, 2012. | Jim Karczewski~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 28, 2012 9:02PM
Three times, the entire Valparaiso team began spilling out of the dugout, a bulging sea of green, desperate to celebrate its first sectional championship in 10 years. A foul tip sent them back in. Another weak foul ball did it again. A sharp single to center field prompted a third false start.
But when the final out settled in right-fielder John Olejniczak’s glove, the race to the mound was on, and an unlikely march through the Merrillville Sectional’s toughest draw was complete.
With its ace unable to start after pitching in the first two games, with its players in a sectional championship game for the first time and with an experienced and favored opponent in the other dugout,
Valparaiso throttled Portage 18-8 in six innings for its first title since 2002.
The win came on the heels of an opening-round win over Chesterton and ace Jake Post, and a wild, nine-inning semifinal victory over sectional favorite Crown Point.
“We knew the competition is incredible,” said Olejniczak, who more than made up for a shaky start on the mound by going 4-for-5 with six RBI and three runs scored. “It’s not like many other sectionals around, where there aren’t many teams with as much firepower as the Crown Points and Portages and teams like us. We’re young, we’re inexperienced, but we have talent, we have leadership and we have drive. And I feel with those three things, we could do anything. We could beat anybody.”
It wasn’t exactly a cakewalk for the Vikings. Olejniczak got them off to a great start with a two-run homer in the first inning, and Valparaiso led 3-0 after an error allowed a run to score in the top of the second.
But Portage has one of the most feared ineups in the region, and for good reason. After Olejniczak plunked Zach Thorn with the bases loaded to make it 3-1, Andrew Brown crushed his second grand slam of the sectional to give the Indians a 5-3 lead after two.
That was the last pitch Olejniczak — starting because ace Devin Bafia was limited after throwing in each of the first two games — threw in this one.
“I come out and give up five runs in the bottom of the second, it’s definitely a confidence killer, it’s definitely frustrating,” Olejniczak said. “But Coach (Dave) Coyle says you’ve got to have a short-term memory.”
After the five-run Portage inning, Coyle gathered his team for a quick pep talk, reminding them how often the Vikings have been on both sides of this situation in Duneland Conference play, and that as long as they kept hitting, they’d be fine.
“And they didn’t panic,” Coyle said.
After a scoreless third, Valparaiso put up three runs in the fourth — Renee Lozano took home on a double steal, and Olejniczak ripped a two-run single — to take a 6-5 lead. But in the bottom of the fourth,
Portage tied it back up at 6-6 on three walks and a passed ball.
Then Valparaiso took over.
The Vikings scored 12 runs in the next two innings, seven in the fifth and five in the sixth — the last three coming via a Joey Gallinatti three-run homer to left field. It was hit so hard, the Portage left fielder didn’t even move.
Olejniczak finished with the home run and three run-scoring singles.
“Every time I’d come in from a hit or between innings, the guys were like, ‘Olie, it’s like a beach ball out there to you, right? Olie, it’s like a video game, right?’” Olejniczak said. “I just saw the ball real well today.”
So did his teammates. Valparaiso finished with 17 hits. Nine different players had a hit, and five had multiple hits. Gallinatti was 2-for-3 with three RBI, Alex Bales was 3-for-3 with an RBI and Stephen Simms scored three times.
As sloppy as the game was, it couldn’t have gone any better for Valparaiso, considering its pitching situation. Bafia finally came in to the game in the fourth inning, and allowed two runs (one earned) in 22/3 innings.
“I came in this morning at about 6 o’clock and had about five different lineup cards ready to go, because we didn’t know what Devin’s situation would be,” Coyle said.
As jubilant as the Vikings were, the Indians were just as disappointed. This is the third straight year Portage lost in the sectional championship game as it seeks that program-defining victory.
Four errors and ineffective outings by all four pitchers used sting.
But considering they lost five starters — including slugger Tony Cheky, who’s starting at Michigan State — and their top two pitchers, a 25-7 season was no small feat for the Indians.
“We just picked a bad time to play a very bad game,” Portage coach Tim Pirowski said.
Now Valparaiso turns its attention to Saturday’s LaPorte Regional. The Vikings likely will be underdogs again. That’s just fine with them.
“They’re drinking the Kool-Aid and they’re believing in what we need them to believe in,” Coyle said. “And I think that’s fantastic.”