SYRACUSE — Tommy Klem knew. So did Blake Cleveland.
The rest of the NorthWood baseball team, no doubt, did as well.
The karma was right and a wild 7-6 victory over Fairfield seemed to fit perfectly into place despite a crazy ending.
When sloppy playing conditions at West Noble High School forced the 3A baseball sectional hosts to move their Tuesday, May 28, championship game to Wawasee, the symbolism may not have clicked right away for Panther fans.
But Klem knew the significance of playing for hardware on the Warriors’ diamond. Because of equally soggy fields, NorthWood and Fairfield each had their sites ruled out of the running as officials looked for a place to play.
By mid-afternoon, Wawasee stepped up and offered the use of its facility to stage the tourney’s penultimate contest.
Deep down, Klem embraced the idea. A year ago, the Panthers lost 7-2 to Tippecanoe Valley in the sectional final at Wawasee.
Klem remembered all too well.
“Coming in, thinking about it all day, obvious you’re nervous. You don’t want it to be your last game,” said Klem. “I pitched here last year and didn’t get the win.”
Cleveland, NorthWood’s hard-swinging No.3 hitter, said that head coach Zach Benko kept the team informed throughout the day about the potential when and where of the finale. When the game landed at Wawasee, no fuss was made. In fact, nothing was shared among the players, especially in Klem’s direction.
“Nope, not a word,” Cleveland said.
Benko took a similar approach in the seventh inning of Tuesday’s final.
After cruising through the Falcon lineup with eight strikeouts and only one walk, Klem took the mound for what NorthWood thought would be a quick, put-a-ribbon-on-it kind of inning.
Even Fairfield coach Brodie Garber figured his team was doomed.
“I told the kids (after the game), if you would have polled everyone here, they would have said, yea, it’s 7-0, it’s over,” Garber said matter-of-factly.
Instead, Fairfield, which had managed just one line drive and four soft singles in six innings, lit up Klem. Line drives — eight of them — peppered the air as the Falcons clawed their way back to 7-6.
Benko made two trips to the mound, mostly to take some air out of Fairfield’s rally balloon.
“It was interesting at the end. We knew it was going to be tough,” Benko said. “I told him he was all right. I wasn’t really out there to talk to Tommy. I was out there to slow them down, make them think ... break up some rhythm.
“Tommy’s our guy. We’re gonna ride that horse until there’s nothing left. He’s earned it. And he showed it. He got the last out.”
But the Panthers were holding their collective breath as Klem searched for the game’s elusive final out as Fairfield lashed six straight two-out hits. The winning run was on base when the game ended.
There was plenty of reassuring chatter coming from Cleveland, whose voice at second base could be heard above the shocked silence of the NorthWood fans and players.
“I was trying to keep him confident ... I knew he’d come through. He has all year,” Cleveland said. “It was a long two outs, but Tommy pulled through.”
Benko knew Klem would survive as well.
There was no relief pitcher heading to the bullpen, no rustling on the Panther bench as the players all leaned on the dugout fence during the harrowing seventh inning. NorthWood’s coach never thought for a second about removing his ace.
“Nope, he’s finished a lot of games for us. He knew he was fine,” Benko said. “Tommy was locating pretty well. It was a matter that they’re a good offensive team. They started to time up the pitcher.”
Garber said he’d seen this kind of scenario before from his club.
“Throughout the year, it seems like our third at-bat against an individual has been our best go-round,” Garber said. “I kind of look and think, ‘How did we score six?’ The first six innings, (Klem) was wonderful. He was on.”
“I felt as good in the first inning as I did in the seventh,” Klem said. “They were just hitting the ball. I thought I was pitching all right. They got some momentum and ran with it.
“Actually, when Coach Benko came out, before he could say anything, I was like, ‘Coach, you’re not bringing me out. I’m going to close this out,” Klem said. “That sort of a senior mentality ... don’t let it be your last day.”
3A Baseball Sectional
northwood 7, fairfield 6
NorthWood 204 100 0 — 7 10 3
Fairfield 000 000 6 — 6 13 2
Tommy Klem and Tanner Cleveland; Jordan Hochstetler, Brad Lantz (4) and Tony Zook.
NorthWood: Hits — Blake Cleveland 3, Hunter Lane 2, Dominic Miranda 2. HR — B. Cleveland. 2B — Chad Ervin, B. Cleveland, Lane. RBI — B. Cleveland 2, Ervin 2, Tanner Cleveland. Runs — B. Cleveland 2. Sac — Kyle McCoy 2.
Fairfield: Hits — Zac Kropf 2, Zook 2, Lucas Miller 2. 2B — Kropf, Miller. RBI — Zook 2, Scott, Kyle Mast, Miller, Forrest Glogouski, Austin Christner. Runs — Zook 2.
Records: NorthWood 15-7, Fairfield 19-5.
Next: NorthWood vs. Angola (20-8) Saturday at Bellmont Regional, 1 p.m.; Norwell vs. Delta, 11 a.m.; championship, 8 p.m.