Brock Netter, Staff Writer
LANCASTER — For the first time in 44 years, the Valley Indians are headed to the Final Four.
Behind a pitching gem from Carter Nickel, timely hitting and error-free baseball, the Indians (20-11) never trailed in Saturday’s Division IV regional final at Beavers Field and and punched their tickets to Akron with a 5-2 victory over Berlin Hiland.
“Pitching and defense. That’s who we’ve been over the last few weeks and man, this is incredible,” Valley coach Nolan Crabtree said. “The bats came alive, the kids were confident at the dish and in the field as well. Hiland is an incredible program all around and this is a stage they’re familiar with. But I feel like we faced the best pitcher in our regional yesterday in [Paint Valley’s] Brock Blanton, so I knew what we were capable of as long as we threw strikes and played defense. I’m so incredibly proud and happy for these kids.”
Nickel was the star of the show, trusting his defense behind him and hitting his spots all night long. He showed how much of a grinder he truly is in the final inning as his pitch count neared its limit, but he still managed to record the final three outs with limited pitches.
He went the distance on the mound for the win, allowing two earned runs and striking out seven batters.
“I knew I had a great defense behind me that’s going to help me out whenever Hiland did hit the ball,” Nickel said. “I know I can trust those guys; they’re my ride or dies. It just came down to me focusing pitch by pitch and if something happens, you can’t think about it. Just keep focusing on the next pitch.”
“Our two sophomore pitchers, Carter and George [Arnett] have been just incredible,” Crabtree added. “We actually played a scrimmage type of game against Minford on Tuesday and I wanted Carter to throw since it had been a while. And he struggled that day. He was all over the place, but we had a talk about doing what’s made him successful all season. He bought in, we had a great scouting report him and he gutted it out until the end.”
Coming into the game, Hiland (27-5) hadn’t given up a single run throughout its tournament run. That streak ended quickly when Valley’s George Arnett notched an infield RBI single to put the Indians ahead 1-0 in the first inning.
The Hawks responded in the top of the third with an RBI triple from Casey Lowe to tie the game at 1-1. However, after they loaded the bases after back-to-back walks, Nickel buckled down and got the next hitter to fly out, avoiding further damage.
Understanding the need to stay ahead and maintain momentum, Arnett stepped up in the third with a pair of runners on and smoked a two-run double to the warning track in left field, extending the lead to 3-1.
“Coach is always telling us to stay level-headed, and not get too high or too low, so we just try to play with a good energy all around,” Valley’s Blake Wood said. “We trust one another and we just do our jobs. This was our goal since our first team meeting and being here and winning is just a blessing.”
In the fourth, Hiland responded with an RBI single on a bases loaded 3-2 pitch to trim to the lead to 3-2. But Nickel registered a strikeout to get out of the bases-loaded jam once again.
Valley then pressed its foot on the pedal and kept it there. The Indians placed runners on first and third with two outs before Hiland was called for a balk, advancing both runners to push the lead to 4-2.
The Indians added an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth off a Hiland fielding error before Nickel and company slammed the door shut in the seventh, punching their ticket to state and sending the Reservation into a frenzy.
“We knew right away coming into this game that we were the better team,” Valley’s Andrew Andronis said. “We were going to hit and compete, that’s all there really was to it. The whole game was intense until the end, but seeing that final out and knowing we’re going to Akron was the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt.”
In addition to his complete game outing, Nickel also went 2-for-3 with two runs scored, while Arnett went 2-for-3 with a double and three RBIs. Andronis and Wood each finished 2-for-3 with a pair of runs scored.
Valley advances to a Division IV state semifinal against Van Wert Lincolnview, who defeated Leispic 5-0 to advance, at 10 a.m., Friday at Canal Park in Akron.
“Baseball is something that people hang onto in Lucasville. That 1975 team that won state is still talked about, along with the 77′ team that made it to state,” Crabtree said. “It’s always been a big part of the community and some great players like 1972 World Series MVP Gene Tenace and Branch Rickey played at Valley. Our community support has been unreal and just to see us finally get over the hump after all of this time is such an amazing feeling. It’s onto Akron now.”