Panthers finish baseball regionals in second place
After chasing the North Star Bearcats throughout the 2021 baseball season the Rugby Panthers came very close to catching them in the final round of the Region 5 playoffs at Conyers Field in Cando.
North Star came back from a tie in the championship game to move on to state with an 11-8 win over Rugby.
The Panthers had stayed on North Star’s tail all season, just shy of first place in the region after defeating Bottineau, Harvey-Wells County and Northern Lights/Rolette at least once. A few hiccups came along the way for Rugby when they fell to both teams at away games in the last week of the regular season.
HWC’s Hornets and Bottineau’s Braves would face the Panthers once again at regionals.
The number two-seeded Panthers squared off against the Bearcats May 24, losing 3-5 in a defensive contest against North Star. They returned for another game the same day against the Braves, where they redeemed themselves with a 10-8 win.
Next up for Rugby were the Hornets, who took the field with confidence from their 12-2 regular-season win over the Panthers in Harvey and 11-5 win over Northern lights the first two days of the tournament.
Cy Luna took the pitcher’s mound against the Hornets. Both teams had lost once to North Star and needed a win to stay alive. The Hornets sent Tyson Tipton to pitch for them.
The Hornets and Panthers battled to a 2-2 tie after four innings before a wild pitch to Panthers outfielder Dylan Bartsch set off a chain of errors that brought Bartsch home for the leading run.
Both Tipton and Luna reached their pitching limits in the game. A pitching change to Ethan Arnold seemed to unsettle the Hornets further. More errors resulted in a walk on bases loaded and a home plate steal by Panther Eric Foster. The Hornets tried another pitching change to steady themselves, but RBIs by Logan Harner sewed up an 8-2 win for Rugby.
“Baseball’s a funny sport,” Panthers Head Coach Travis Risovi said of the Panthers’ redemption in their games against the Hornets and the Braves. “A lot has to do with how you’re swinging the bat that day and are you making the plays and how is your pitcher throwing, you know?”
The Panthers returned to Conyers Field the next day with a second chance at a state ticket. If they won two games in a row, a trip to Jamestown would be theirs.
The Bearcats stood in their way.
The Panthers turned their aggression level to high and began the first inning with loaded bases courtesy of Harner, Luna and Jacob Ripplinger. An RBI by Brady Schock put the Panthers in the lead.
Bearcats pitcher Hayden Hagler took first base for North Star on a Rugby error. Parker Simon would bat Hagler in for the tying run. With Ripplinger on the mound, the Panthers limited the damage and ended the inning with one Bearcat left on base.
The Panthers struggled to keep their momentum in the second inning. With no more runs scored, they took to the field to play defense. A hit by Zachary Jorde skirted the left field foul line, resulting in a double. Dane Hagler would get home on a Panthers overthrow to third after a steal attempt. After a bunt by Garret Westlind brought a runner home, but Panthers third base player Cole Schneibel held Westlind back when another successful bunt threatened to give the Bearcats another run. The Panthers continued their efforts to hold the Bearcats back after a fly ball by Dane Hagler’s brother Hayden dropped into a hole in right field before a grounder by Thomas Nikolaisen brought two more runs in.
By the time the second inning ended, the Panthers would trail 8-2.
The Panthers regained their momentum in the third inning when Harner took first base on a walk. A line drive double by Ripplinger put Harner on third. A wild pitch would bring Harner home and put Schneibel on first base before Schock brought Schneibel home. Another RBI would follow, this time by Foster. Their time at bat would end with the Panthers behind but in striking distance, 5-8.
The Panthers defenders steeled themselves and put the Bearcats down in quick succession to end the inning.
Tim Mueller picked up where the Panthers had left off in the fourth inning with a base hit. Another base hit by Harner resulted in a force out and a center field fly by Ripplinger put two outs on the board for the Panthers. With two outs, Luna waited out four high, outside pitches to take first base.
With time running out, Schneibel stepped up to bat, found a perfect pitch and hit it out of the park.
Cheering wildly, Harner and Luna joined their team and coaches to welcome Schneibel at home plate. The homer tied the score at 8 apiece, putting a trip to state within reach.
The Panthers outfield kept the Bearcats from any runs despite a close call at third when Jeremiah Hill missed a tag out at third by milliseconds.
Both teams kept each other in check during the fifth inning.
The Panthers saw two hits in the sixth inning but runs failed to materialize. Then, the Bearcats took to the plate, determined to punch their tickets to state in one game.
Two base hits, a pop fly and two Panther errors brought the Bearcats three runs before the inning ended.
With another hole to dig out of, Macen Heisler doubled for Rugby. The hungry Bearcats held the Panthers back, preventing two more hits and striking out a third.
The Panthers ended the tournament in second place.
“We played pretty well. We made a few errors that we wished we could take back but overall, I’m really proud of the boys,” Risovi said of the tournament. “We played really hard and nobody gave up. The team kept their heads up and played hard, had a lot of fun,” Risovi added. “It was just one of those things where they came up on the short end but I’m super proud of them.”
Risovi said of the season, “We used a lot of pitchers during the year and we tried a lot of different lineups to figure out what we wanted to be when we got to this point and I think we were there. We had it figured out and we had it set up the way we wanted to and we go to this game. That’s where we wanted to get to. Unfortunately, we just came up a little short.”
“North Star hit really good,” Risovi said. “Jacob (Ripplinger) did a great job throwing strikes and North Star put the bat on the ball and the hits found grass.”
“That’s a big part of the game and there’s nothing new about that,” Risovi added. “A pitcher’s job is to throw strikes and you make plays behind them and if they get hits you’ve got to tip your hat to them.”
“We had three very good seniors and they were fun to coach and a fun group to be with but the thing is, out of our 25 boys that were on the team all year long, 22 of them are back next year,” Risovi said of the Panthers. Mueller, Schneibel and Luna graduated this year and are headed for college. Luna will continue with baseball. After graduating from TGU, he will play for the Dakota College at Bottineau Lumberjacks.
“And again next year, only three of them will be seniors,” Risovi added. “So, we’re really, really young but very talented. And our youth didn’t hold us back at all this year. We were really competitive in every game and we have a chance (for next year).”
Schneibel, who is headed for Valley City State to play football, said he would miss the Panthers baseball team. “Those guys are pretty funny and they’re a lot of fun, too,” he said.
Schneibel described his home run at regionals as “exciting. It definitely brought us back into the game. We were losing 8-2 and after that it swung the momentum. It brought us back into the game and tied it up. It was a good thing.”
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