By Dan Hardenbrook
The Newberry Indians were supposed to be overmatched in their MHSAA Division 3 District Tournament at Gladstone last Friday afternoon. The field of larger schools and tougher, more decorated teams left many claiming that the Indians had no shot to win a title, let alone a single game.
But as the old sports cliche says, that’s why you don’t play the games on paper.
The Indians entered the tournament in a semifinal matchup against the Menominee Maroons. After a roller coaster ride of a season, the Indians finally put all the pieces together in a win that was described by many as “magical”.
Freshman Matthew Rahilly had one of his best starts of the season on the mound, throwing 102 pitches in a complete seven-inning game in which he allowed just six hits and struck out six Maroons hitters. Rahilly kept the Menominee offense off the board for most of the game by giving up just one lone run in the 5-1 victory.
With the freshman on the mound, a group of Newberry seniors who weren’t ready to see their career come to an end sparked the offense. Connor Rintamaki went 4-for-4 with 4 singles, scoring multiple runs and setting up teammates Liam Shanley and Johnny Nutkins to knock in key runs. Shanley had two hits, including a huge two-run single while Nutkins, fighting through intense pain in his back, knocked in another run for the Indians.
Another newcomer, freshman Ethan Pavey, also played a pivotal role in the win with an RBI of his own to help the Indians secure the upset.
Players showed plenty of passion, the fans brought plenty of enthusiasm and excitement, and the energy allowed the Indians to secure a victory that no one thought was possible.
After an intense and emotionally charged win, the team faced an even tougher test in the district final against Gladstone that afternoon.
The host Gladstone Braves are usually a state title contender, and they overwhelmed Superior Central in their own semifinal victory to set up a title match against the Indians with home field advantage.
The Braves made a surprising decision prior to the championship game, choosing to be the visiting team on their own turf and giving up the potential last at bat of the game in favor of an opportunity to hit first and get an early lead.
The strategy paid off, as the Indians couldn’t muster any more magic. Drained from the huge win in the first game, Newberry had to make a quick turn around and refocus on Gladstone, who was fresh after a full two-hour break. The Braves scored three runs in the top of the first inning, then forced a double play in the bottom half with the Indians at the plate. With momentum on the Braves side and the magic wearing off for the Indians, Gladstone picked up the district championship with a 15-0 win.
Despite the disappointing end, the Indians still impressed in their biggest game of the year, rising to the occasion after being counted out following a season that saw them finish 6-22 overall.
But the win-loss record was never the real focus for first year head coach Dan Hardenbrook.
“I knew very early on that this was going to be about more than just wins and losses,” he said. “Throughout the season I kept comparing our team to the team we were two or three weeks prior. Every step of the way we showed great improvement.”
Hardenbrook said the team improved more in one season than any other baseball team he’s been around.
“If you asked me back in March while we were practicing in the gym if we would be playing for a district ditle, I would’ve said no way. But we kept proving people wrong when they counted us out,” he said. “I’m so proud of these guys and how they came along. We picked the right day to play our very best; we just came up a little bit short.”
Gladstone Coach Joe Darmogray tipped his cap to the team when talking about his reaction to the Indians’ upset victory earlier in the day. Darmogray told the Escanaba Daily Press “We fully expected Menominee to win. They were tough during the season when we played them and we didn’t know much about Newberry. But Newberry pulled it out and played really well against Menominee.”