LITTLE FALLS, NY – From the minute baseball season officially started in the fall, the Herkimer Generals have been working towards their goal of winning a national championship. First, though, the Generals had to win the Region III Championship to guarantee themselves a spot in Tennessee.
“It’s been a goal since day one,” freshman and Whitesboro native Matt Parkinson said. “We’ve been working since August 25th, just working and lifting. When we’re ready, no one’s going to beat us…It’s just us versus the baseball when we’re having fun.”
The baseball may have won Round One on Monday, but ultimately the Generals got the last laugh, as they bounced back from a 5-3 loss to the Thunder Wolves in the first game of the double elimination final. They rode the back of three home runs in three at-bats from tournament MVP Micheal Wroth (four in both games) in the second game, however, to jump out to a lead and never look back, taking the second game 13-5 to claim the regional championship.
Despite all of the adversity taken on by both teams – Herkimer’s win to get them into the championship game at almost 11 pm on Sunday, while the Thunder Wolves were still playing an elimination game well past midnight – head coach Jason Rathbun didn’t let it get to him or his Generals.
“When you start playing for a title,” Rathbun said, “It doesn’t matter what time it is.”
Game One started at a more respectable time (around 1 in the afternoon on Monday), and it started as somewhat of a pitcher’s duel between Niagara’s Keegan Ernest and Herkimer’s Jake Terrill, as both of them made it through the first inning perfect. As a matter of fact, six of Terrill’s first eight pitches were strikes. The Thunder Wolves finally broke through in the bottom of the second inning, as back to back hits by freshman Michael O’Connor and sophomore Matt Cross scored O’Connor and made it a 1-0 game.
It would stay that way until the top of the fifth inning, when the Generals would tie the game upking at one on a booming home run by freshman Brandon Kruzinski into the right-center field bleachers. The Thunder Wolves would grab the lead right back in their half of the inning, starting out with a suicide squeeze play by freshman Bryan Rivers to bring home Jake Cavana. A looping single by freshman Matt Kruszka would bring home Niagara’s second run of the inning, but a fantastic play at the plate by Parkinson would mitigate the damage to just two runs.
Niagara would add even more insurance in the next two innings, adding one run apiece in both the sixth and seventh innings to keep the lead at three. The Generals would not say die, though, as Terrill continued to mow down Niagara batters, racking up seven strikeouts in total. Meanwhile, at the plate, the Generals continued to chip away at the lead.
“We just had to show them who we were,” Wroth, who went 1-4 in the first game, said. “They started talking [from the dugout,] and it was just getting us more fired up.” That fire definitely showed up in the later innings for the Generals, as Wroth’s home run in the eighth – his first of four on the day – pulled Herkimer to within two with just one inning to play.
Unfortunately for the Generals, the fire showed up too late to stop the two-time defending Region III champions in the Thunder Wolves. Sophomore Joe Kruszka came in the top of the ninth and kept Niagara’s hopes alive, as the closer set the Generals down in order in the ninth to take Game One.
During the 45-minute break between games, it was clear that Rathbun didn’t need to say anything to his team, who were now one game from either the national championship or an early end to their season. “I didn’t go over there and tell them anything…I wanted them to take care of it,” Rathbun said. “We prepared them for this, they had to go out and earn it.”
According to Wroth, it was not the coaches who did the yelling, but the Generals’ 12 upperclassmen who did the talking during the break. “We came out flat,” Wroth said of Herkimer’s performance, in which they only managed seven hits and three runs. “We had some of the sophomores take us behind the shed and get us fired up. We knew we were going to win then.”
“We knew we couldn’t get down on ourselves,” Parkinson said. “We just didn’t have a sense of urgency [in the first game].”
That sense of urgency came rather quickly for the Generals, though – rather, it came within the first seven batters of the game. First, Kuzinski slammed a double, and then Stillman slammed a two-run home run over the fence in left field to give Herkimer a quick 2-0 lead. Then, starter Matthew Boone set the first three Thunder Wolves he saw down in order on just six pitches.
“We were tired [after last night’s games,]” Wroth said. “Then we came out firing in Game Two.”
Niagara would get those runs back in the third inning, however. Using the power of back-to-back hits by freshman Vincent Chiarenza and Thompson, the Thunder Wolves found themselves back in the game. That celebration would not last long, however, as Stillman found the left field fence once again for his second home run of the game, putting the Generals back up by one once again.
It was a lead they would never relinquish, thanks to the long ball, helped along by the power baseball of the Generals. Before that, however, another duel would break out between both teams’ pitching staffs, setting the others’ batters down in order three straight times. Wroth would hit his first home run of the game in the fifth, knocking a two-run bomb over the light pole in center field for another two runs.
Unfortunately for the Thunder Wolves, the Generals would finally break the game open in the seventh inning on back-to-back singles by Kuzinski and Stillman. Wroth would make the Niagara reliever pay for that, belting his third home run of the day to straightaway center field. Brian Forbes would add another run on a passed ball, and suddenly, with an 11-3 lead, the game seemed well in hand.
Relievers Zachary Durant and Matt Gonzales, helped along by yet another four runs in the eighth and ninth innings (two in both innings) continued to dominate for the Generals, only allowing another two runs down the stretch to put the game out of reach and earn Herkimer their 122nd Region III championship as a school.
For both Wroth and Parkinson, both incoming freshmen on this year’s squad, the feeling of being a part of the hallowed history of the Herkimer Generals was nothing short of sublime, but their goal is still the same as it was in August: a national championship.
“This is great for us,” Parkinson said. “But in our eyes, we want so much more.”
“It feels great,” Wroth said, “But we’re not finished yet. Our goal is a national championship, [but] I think we’re ready to go. We just have to play our game. We know we’re good, and hopefully, we can come back [from the NJCAA World Series] with some more hardware.”
Despite the loss, there is an outside chance that the Generals and Thunder Wolves can meet again in Tennessee. At press time, the seedings had still not yet been determined, but there was still a very good chance that Niagara could pick up an at-large bid. That meant there was a chance for Round Three, this time, several hundred miles away from either team’s home field. However, in the moment, Rathbun was more concerned about one thing: celebrating with his team.
“I’m just proud of them,” Rathbun said. “I told them that it’s more than baseball, it’s about growing as men, and they did that today.”
Niagara Thunder Wolves 5, Herkimer Generals 3
Herkimer Generals 13, Niagara Thunder Wolves 5
NJCAA Region III Championship Games
Generals 000 010 110 3 7 0
Thunder Wolves 010 021 10X 5 7 1
WP: Keegan Ernest (6.1 IP, 2 ER, 7 H, 1 BB, 4 K)
LP: Jake Terrill (6 IP, 4 ER, 5 H, 1 BB, 8 K)
SV: Joe Kruszka.
Niagara: Yohn Zapata-Baez.
Herkimer: John O’Donnell, Cody Kaestle.
Herkimer: Joe Fichera.
Niagara: Matt Cross, Jake Cavana, Bryan Rivera.
Herkimer: Micheal Wroth.
Total LOB: Herkimer 6, Niagara 4.
Generals 201 002 422 13 12 2
Thunder Wolves 000 001 020 5 8 3
WP: Matthew Boone (2.2 IP, 2 R, 1 ER, 2 H, 1 BB, 2 K)
LP: Justin Beyer.
Niagara: Trace Gillis, Joe Kruzska, CJ Gonzales, Nick Keiner.
Herkimer: Cody Kaestle, Zachary Durant, Matt Gonzales.
Herkimer: Brandon Kruzinski, Joe Fichera,
Niagara: Garrett Boldt.
Niagara: Vincent Chiarenza.
Herkimer: Micheal Wroth 3, Brendyn Stillman 2.
Total LOB: Niagara 12, Herkimer 7.
Records: Niagara 40-7, Herkimer 35-7.