By Andy Sneddon
Special to Second Half
BATTLE CREEK – An absolute gem of a high school baseball game, and a shame that one team had to come out on the losing end.
That’s sports, and that’s baseball.
Cole Zingas scored on a throwing error in the top of the eighth inning Saturday night, then Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett got a pair of standout defensive plays in the bottom of the inning while holding on to beat Beal City, 3-2, in an oh-so-memorable Division 4 championship game at C.O. Brown Stadium.
“If that’s not the greatest championship game at any level in a long time, I’d like to see one better,” said University Liggett coach Dan Cimini. “The back and forth on both sides, all of our kids fought, scratched and played their hearts out.
“That was the best baseball game I’ve ever been involved in. And I’m not just talking about the play, I’m talking about the hustle and the drive and the will to win and the will not to lose. It was unbelievable.”
It was University Liggett’s second MHSAA crown in three years. The Knights (31-4) were runners-up last season.
Beal City (35-3) was back in the title game after winning championships in 2008 and 2010. The Aggies fell to University Liggett in the Semifinals in 2011.
Beal City left the bases loaded four times through the first seven innings and stranded 14 runners on the day.
Aggies pitcher Ty Rollin took a perfect game into the fifth inning and a no-hitter into the sixth, when Patrick Broder ended his latter bid with a leadoff infield single.
The game was tied 1-1 in the top of the seventh when the Knights got a one-out single from Connor Fannon, a walk to Nathan Gaggin, and a single from Anthony Simon to load the bases. Kevin Allen’s sacrifice fly to center brought home the go-ahead run.
The Aggies tied it in the bottom of the seventh when No. 9 hitter Nicholas Hoogerhyde drew a bases-loaded walk.
Fannon, who had taken over on the mound for University Liggett to start the fifth inning, then struck out Rollin, the Aggies’ leadoff hitter, and they had left the bases loaded for the fourth time.
Still, Beal City had managed to tie the game, setting the stage for the dramatic eighth inning.
Zingas, University Liggett’s No. 9 hitter, led off the top of the eighth with an infield hit. He moved to second on an Adam Fiema bunt, and took third on yet another infield single, this one by Mark Auk.
With Auk on first base, a wild pickoff attempt skipped by first baseman Ryan Tilmann, and Zingas raced home with what turned out to be the winning run.
For the bottom of the eighth Fiema relieved Fannon, University Liggett’s workhorse who went the distance in the Knights’ 1-0 Semifinal win over New Lothrop on Friday.
Fiema struck out the Aggies’ leadoff hitter, and then induced popouts for the final two outs. Both were highlight reel-worthy catches, the first a sliding grab by Auk in shallow centerfield on a ball that looked certain to drop for a hit; the second by catcher Nathan Gaggin. He caught the final out falling backward in foul territory between home plate and the first-base on-deck circle.
Rollin went all eight innings on the mound for Beal City. He allowed six hits, struck out five and walked two. Fannon earned the victory, while Fiema picked up the save.
“I give it to my guys,” Cimini said. “I love those guys. They fight, scratch, claw – they never give up, and they will never give up and that’s how we won this baseball game.”
As proud, Cimini said, as he was of his own team, he was equally proud of – but also sympathetic toward – the Aggies.
“Their coach (Brad Antcliff), he’s one of my best friends in the coach world and I respect him and what he’s done with that program. And I told him neither team deserved to lose this ballgame, and I believe that with all my heart.
“They (Beal City) should be super proud, I’m super proud, and I’m super proud to be able to be able to play against a team and a coach like that.”
PHOTO: (Top) University Liggett pitcher Connor Fannon begins to celebrate after catcher Nathan Gaggin catches the final out of the Division 4 Final. (Middle) Knights shortstop Nicholas Azar dives over teammate Mark Evan Auk after Auk makes a grab during the eighth inning. (Click to see more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)