Northwestern Lehigh has had a number of baseball teams capable of winning a league championship, but in each of its four previous trips to the Colonial League finals, Notre Dame (Green Pond) stood between the Tigers and a championship.
Northwestern head coach Duran Porrino may have put it best when he said, “the fifth time is the charm.”
Northwestern picked up its first league title since 2003 with Rafe Perich homering twice, and Nick Henry driving in the walk-off runs that the Tigers needed to take a 13-3 win over the Crusaders. Perich also allowed just one earned run over four innings.
After Perich put the Crusaders down in order in the first, he stepped to the plate with one out and nobody on and launched a home run to center field, giving Northwestern Lehigh an early 1-0 lead. An inning later, the Tigers exploded for seven runs against Notre Dame starter Conner Rex. They started the inning with some small ball when Ben Boyer led off with a single and moved across the diamond to third on an errant pickoff throw to first.
Ryan Kensinger walked, and R.J. Zack executed a perfect safety squeeze to make it 2-0. After another walk, Carter Welch singled to center to bring home courtesy runner Justin Augustus and put Northwestern up 3-0.
That’s where the small ball ended as Perich put windshields in the parking lot in jeopardy with a long home run to left field, clearing the two runners off the base paths and making it 6-0. Doubles by Justin Holmes and Henry made it 7-0 and an RBI single from Boyer gave the Tigers an eight-run cushion.
“That loss to Liberty (11-0 in the season finale) really upset us,” said Perich after the game. “We were just really prepared for this game, and it turned out amazing. All of our hard work paid off and we came in really motivated to win this game.”
All was quiet until the bottom of the fourth when Holmes and Witkowski led off the inning with singles to put runners on first and third. Henry hit into a double play, but Holmes was able to score the ninth run of the game for Northwestern.
The Crusaders loaded the bases with nobody out in the top of the fifth and Boyer came on to relieve Perich. An error, a single and a sacrifice fly gave Notre Dame three runs, cutting the lead to 9-3 heading to the bottom of the fifth.
Zack led off the Tigers’ portion of the inning with another perfectly placed bunt, this time for a base hit and Tanner Romig followed with a sacrifice bunt to move Zack to second. A walk and an error loaded the bases and the next two hitters hit ground balls that should have cut down runners at the plate, but catcher Jackson Schollenberger dropped the throw on both plays, making it 11-3 in favor of Northwestern. Holmes then lashed his game-winner to right, knocking in two more runs and giving the Tigers a 13-3 walk-off win thanks to the 10-run rule.
“That felt awesome,” said Henry of his two-run double. “We were here two years ago and we didn’t like the outcome and we just came in here with the most confidence that we’ve ever had, so we ended up winning.”
By virtue of being the top seed in 4A, the Tigers get a bye in the quarterfinals and will open district play in Thursday’s semifinal game. Northwestern will face fifth seed Allentown Central Catholic in the semis. The Vikings downed Blue Mountain, the alma mater of coach Porrino, in the quarterfinals. The semifinals were initially scheduled for Friday, but the threat of bad weather caused District 11 to move the games up a day.