FREDERICK -- Northeast's baseball team ventured into the Walkersville Lions' den Saturday and snatched a 7-6 Class 2A state championship victory right out of their jaws.
The game was played in 93-degree heat at McCurdy Field -- just eight miles from Walkersville High -- and it was every bit the drama it was billed to be.
A year ago, Northeast demolished Hammond, 15-3, to complete a state-record 24-0 season that Coach Harry Lentz said "took the monkeys off our backs."
He was referring to the criticism leveled against the Eagles' previous team, which did not play perennial powerhouses Old Mill and Arundel in compiling a 22-0 record before losing, 6-5, to Edgewood in the state semifinal. Last year's Eagles toppled nearly all opponents easily, including eventual 4A state champ Arundel, 14-4, on their way to a No. 1 national ranking.
But that created a gorilla-sized burden for this year's team.
"This one meant a lot more, because I'm a senior, and no one gave us a chance," said right fielder Derek Dolch, one of five returning members from last year's squad.
Dolch, who doubled and scored twice Saturday, said he could hear the boisterous Walkersville bench and fans. "I think that even their fans were thinking it was going to be easy," he said.
But it was a struggle for both teams.
Senior first baseman Scott Rey delivered the game-winner, scoring pinch-runner Jeff Hagan on his bases-loaded, bottom-of-the-seventh bloop single to shallow right field off reliever Russ Windsor.
But it was the Eagles' fielding efforts -- they committed just one error -- not to mention Rich Spiegel's two home runs, which kept Northeast from ever trailing in a game that was tied twice. The Lions' squad was notorious for its defense (a 1.45 ERA among four pitchers) and crafty base running.
Lentz, in his 25th season, meticulously prepared for this one. On the bus ride to the game, his players and assistant coaches reviewed five different scouting reports.
"We knew they were going to give us a battle, and we figured that defense was going to be the difference," said Lentz, whose Eagles (18-5) became the third straight 2A school to win back-to-back titles. "I didn't think that the pressure would force us to reach a breaking point mentally, because we had some veterans who have been here before."
Veteran shortstop Joe Hoyer was in on two clutch efforts. The first came in the second inning, when he tagged out Jason Rummel at second base on a steal attempt. And in the sixth, Hoyer scooped a Dana Shrodel grounder, got the force out on Kurt Cunningham at second and threw out Shrodel to complete the double play.
Despite the nine walks and a hit batsman given up by junior hurler Wayne Hudson (6-1), the Eagles stranded seven Walkersville runners and held the Lions to just three hits.
"That's been our trademark all year, having to play good defense in every game. So we figured this wouldn't be any different," said Hoyer, who walked twice and scored twice, to raise his team-leading totals to 32 runs scored and set new state records for both single-season walks (25) and career walks (58).
"Two straight -- what a way to go out," said Hoyer. "This team really worked hard to get here."
Spiegel (2-for-3, three RBI), the lineup's No. 3 batter behind Hoyer, tied the state record for career RBI at 81, raising his team-leading totals to seven home runs and 38 RBI for the year. His two-run homer in the bottom of the first gave Northeast a 2-0 lead, and his fifth-inning solo blast put the Eagles up, 5-3.
"I've been practicing my cuts all week and just trying to relax," said Spiegel, displaying a black eye from being hit by a grounder in Wednesday's practice. "I didn't let the pressure get to me."
Had Hoyer not grounded out on a 3-1 pitch before Spiegel's second home run, Spiegel might have broken the state career RBI record.
"I thought that second home run was a big lift for them," said Walkersville coach Paul Merrill, whose Lions (20-4) had cut the deficit to 4-3 at that point. "Spiegel has fouled the previous ball back, and both our catcher [Rob Newbury] and our third baseman [Dana Shrodel] dropped it. So he hits the next one out of the park."
Northeast, which had six hits against Walkersville starter Chris Palmer (5-1), also got help from teammates Hudson and K. C. Murphy, whose run-scoring singles plated Dolch and Hoyer to give the Eagles leads of 3-2 and 4-2 in the second and third innings. Murphy picked up his 24th RBI.
But that wouldn't cushion them from the spunky Lions' squad. The Lions tied the game at 2-2 in the second inning, as Cunningham drove in a run with a triple and then scored on Shrodel's sacrifice fly, Shrodel's 21st RBI.
In the fourth, the Lions' Shane Edwards singled, took second on a walk to Shawn DeWees and went to third on a wild pitch before crossing the plate on a ground out to make it 4-3.
Chad O'Brien (14 RBI) blooped a sixth-inning, bases-loaded single to short right to give Northeast its biggest lead, 6-3, but the Lions rallied to tie the game with a three-run seventh.
To start the final inning, Hudson walked Newbury, who advanced on a wild pitch. Newbury took third on a ground out and scored when O'Brien cleanly fielded Edwards' grounder, but threw it under Rey's glove.
Edwards went to second on the play, which made it 6-4, and Hudson hit the next batter, DeWees. Then Palmer doubled in his second RBI of the day -- his 31st of the season -- to make it a one-run game.
The hit also chased Hudson from the mound after 130 pitches. Hudson's replacement, speedballing junior Chris Kelly (6-1, 0.97 ERA), promptly yielded Tim Peterson's run-scoring sacrifice fly, which tied the game. He then walked the next batter before getting his 43rd strikeout in as many innings.
"All I kept thinking about was the Queen Anne's game earlier this year," said Lentz. "We had an 8-0 lead and couldn't hold it, and we lost, 10-9."
"I thought the umpire was kind of inconsistent, and I still wasn't 100 percent today, even though I warmed up," said Hudson, who threw 122 pitches in last Tuesday's 7-3 semifinal victory over J. M. Bennett. "I'm just glad Chris came in and won the game for us."
Palmer hit Spiegel with a pitch to start the bottom seventh, and Hagan -- who went in to run for Spiegel -- stole second before Jason Hohman walked. Palmer then was relieved by Windsor, who advanced both runners in a blown pick-off attempt at second. Coach Merrill had Dolch intentionally walked to load the bases, setting the stage for Rey.
"Everyone was comparing us to last year's team, saying we couldn't do what they did," said Murphy. "Last year's team had an easier time with the competition, but we got the same results. Just like I've been saying all week long, we can come through in the clutch."