It may have taken much of the season, but the Norfolk Elkhorn Valley Bank Juniors appear to be hitting their stride at the right time.
Norfolk cruised to victories of 9-0 and 10-5 over Grand Island Tom Dinsdale Auto in a doubleheader sweep Wednesday evening at Veterans Memorial Park to improve to 8-17 on the season. It was the final home games of the season for the local American Legion baseball program.
Juniors coach Derrion Davis said he recognizes that the season hasn't gone as well as the team might have hoped, but turning things around in time for Class A area tournaments is paramount.
Norfolk showcased that winning stride Wednesday by pounding out 20 hits combined in the twinbill. Eleven of those hits came in just four innings of the opener.
In game one, Brody Konz and the Norfolk defense allowed just three baserunners — a leadoff single, a fourth-inning error and a walk in the fifth inning.
“Everything hasn't gone our way so far, but if we're clicking going into the 19th of July (the start of Class A area tournaments), anything is possible,” he said. “We are the best team out there. I think we can't be beat if we play defense and we pitch. All we've got to do is hit, and everything else falls into place.”
Konz's complete-game one-hitter was the headliner, but it was a team effort — both offensively and defensively — that pushed Norfolk to the opening-game win.
“It's everything when Brody comes out and gives us that start,” Davis said. “He does it every week for us. He gives us that consistent start, and the sky is the limit for us if we can play defense and score runs.”
The offense did its part with a team effort.
Andrew Papstein, the fifth batter in the lineup, was a big reason Norfolk enjoyed its productive opener at the plate with a two-run single in the first inning and a two-run double in the second.
In addition, leadoff batter Dustin Brenden reached on an error, singled, and added a RBI double while scoring three runs. No. 2 hitter Landon Vaughn singled twice and scored a run.
It all started right away for the offense. Five of the first six Norfolk batters reached, and three of those came around to score — two via Papstein's single into shallow right field — and Jett Stateler followed with a RBI single near the same spot for an early 3-0 advantage.
“What pleased me the most was our actual execution,” Davis said. “If a guy's on second, we got the bunts down, we got our runners over if we needed to on the right side. We haven't hit the right side almost all year, so we worked on that all week in practice.”
One inning later, Norfolk led off with consecutive singles to load the bases, but a fielder's choice resulted in an out at the plate. It appeared Grand Island might escape with minimal damage after Ryan Uhing's RBI single when another runner was caught in a rundown between third base and home plate. But on the next pitch, Papstein's double into left made it a 6-0 lead.
Norfolk chased Grand Island starter Aidan Keyes after just 2!-E innings, and Colton Price later smacked a two-out, two-run single into right to put the potential mercy rule in effect at 9-0.
Meanwhile, Norfolk stayed strong on the field. After a leadoff single, Konz and the Norfolk defense retired 11 straight Grand Island batters until an error in the fourth inning. But on the next pitch, that batter was forced out on a fielder's choice at second base. Konz struck out five and issued one walk which came with two outs in the fifth.
“The little things we worked on showed in today's game,” Davis said.
IN GAME TWO, Norfolk needed just two hits to score five runs as it sent 10 batters to the plate in the bottom of the third to take the lead.
That doesn't mean Norfolk didn't have some help, as Grand Island contributed two errors, two hit batters and a fielder's choice that resulted in another run scored.
Vaughn's bunt down the first-base line led to a wide throw that scored Brenden, and then Papstein's hit dropped just in front of the right fielder for a single. Jett Stateler's hit toward shortstop resulted in another wild throw that scored Vaughn.
Schwanebeck then bunted down the first-base line in an apparent squeeze play, and Papstein tied the game when he beat the throw to home plate. Grant Colligan, the ninth batter in the lineup, ripped a two-run single to give Norfolk the lead.
Grand Island nearly took the lead away in the next inning. With two outs, an error, single and walk loaded the bases, and another walk put the visitors within 5-4. But Brayden Lammers snagged a bouncing grounder and fired to a stretching Colton Price at first base to end the inning and keep the lead.
“We worked on our up-the-middle defense, which was tremendous today,” Davis said. “Our shortstop, Brayden Lammers, did a great job of making every play that was coming to him.”
Norfolk answered when Vaughn scored from third after the catcher threw to try to get Papstein out at second base, and then the hosts nearly ended it in the next inning with four more runs.
Vaughn, Papstein and Price all had two hits each to lead the Norfolk offense.
Grand Island 000 00 — 0 1 1
Norfolk 333 0X — 9 11 1
WP: Brody Konz. LP: Aidan Keyes. 2B: (N) Dustin Brenden, Andrew Papstein.
Grand Island 102 100 1 — 5 8 4
Norfolk 005 140 X — 10 9 1
WP: Jackson Schwanebeck. LP: Marcos Perez. 2B: (GI) Dominic Bardales; (N) Ryan Uhing, Colton Price. SB: (GI) Michael Moreno; (N) Dustin Brenden 2, Landon Vaughn, Andrew Papstein.