Brandon Barker’s sixth inning, two run single put the Napanee Peewee Express ahead for good as they defeated the Wilmot Thunder 8-4 to clinch gold at the U14 Fast Pitch Canadians in Saskatoon, Sask. last Wednesday.
With the game knotted at 4-4, Barker stepped up with one out and two runners on base. He took the first pitch for a called strike before connecting on a clutch single on the next pitch.
Ethan Sutcliffe cashed in two huge insurance runs two batters later with a two out, two run triple. Gavin Brooks pitched two scoreless innings to close out the game and clinch national gold.
Napanee had jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first when Ty Kemp singled home a pair.
They then scratched out two more runs on a costly Thunder error which allowed Brooks and Kemp to score to go up 4-0.
The Thunder weren’t about to go away quietly however, chipping away with two runs in the third and two more in the fifth. Undeterred, the Express responded with four in their next at bat and never looked back.
“We continued to hit the ball extremely hard throughout that game,” said Express head coach Stephen Paul. “In many cases they’re right at the other team and because of that we were all very confident we were eventually going to score some runs. They came back to tie it up but we immediately came back the next inning and scored four. It spoke highly to the motivation of the team and what we were doing all day and all tournament, never giving in and they were always in the game.”
Prospects of a gold medal were looking bleak when the Express dropped their first playoff game 7-1 to Chatsworth, putting them on the brink of elimination.
“We were fortunate to finish in the top four after the preliminary round, that gave us two lives,” said coach Paul. “Losing our first playoff game to Chatsworth still gave us the opportunity to bring home a medal. We talked to the boys at the start of the week that this was a marathon and these last four games were the last steps in that marathon. A team that gets on a roll is a dangerous team and we were definitely a dangerous team once we got to Wednesday morning. After winning one game and then another game, we knew things were looking pretty good for us because they were playing at the best of their ability and they were extremely motivated and the result was a gold medal.”
After an 11-3 win to begin their day, the Express were matched up against a Chatsworth team that had their number all tournament, defeating them twice already.
Third time was the charm for Napanee, as Jack Madden broke a 3-3 tie with a two run triple in the fifth to spark an eventual 6-4 victory.
Luke Paul tacked on an insurance run with an RBI single in the top of the seventh.
That run would prove important as Chatsworth rallied for one in the bottom of the seventh and brought the tying run to the plate before Brooks was called on to end the game with a swinging strikeout.
Paul said one of the team’s biggest weapons all week was their ability to hit with two outs, scoring key runs to both lift their spirits while deflating those on the other side of the diamond.
Napanee finished the tournament 8-3 overall, winning four straight must win games to clinch the country’s top prize, including defeating the the two Ontario teams that had beaten them earlier in the tournament. Wilmot would take silver while Chatsworth clinched bronze for an all-Ontario podium finish.
Paul said the support they received through texts and phone calls from back home helped to push them through the week.
“That made us feel proud and it really drove the boys to do what they did,” said Paul. “To know they had huge community support, there’s not many communities that can say that, to really support all their athletes and their teams, they certainly supported our U14 team.”
As luck would have, Napanee’s U16 Express were scheduled to begin their tournament on the very same diamond following the conclusion of the U14 gold medal game. Their players and fans were able to lend their support to help the Express finish strong.
“It almost felt like the Fairgrounds that evening, it was pretty special,” said Paul.
There was little rest for the Express or the other Ontario teams, who returned from Saskatoon and jumped right into provincials, which were held this weekend in Wilmot. Napanee finished fourth, with the Thunder taking gold, Drumbo silver and Chatsworth bronze.