By GREG MENGELT
New Albany pulled away from Highland late and continued its stranglehold on Indiana Little League’s 9-10-year-old division with a 6-1 victory at Jeff/GRC Little League on Thursday.
With the victory, New Albany earned its third straight state championship at the 9-10 level.
“It’s the best time in my life right now,” said New Albany’s Mitchell Meyer. “It feels great to be a state champion. It means our Little League is one of the best. Three times in a row — that might be a record or something.”
“It’s the best feeling of my life,” Hunter Sprigler concurred. “And it’s one of the best feelings I’ll ever have.”
“That was awesome,” said manager Josh Biven, who coached all three championship teams. “Two kids won it last year [Austin Oppel and David Newbanks], but we had 11 new kids who get to hang a banner on the [New Albany Little League dugout] wall.
Next year, Biven will move up to the 11-12-year-old level where he will help coach a team that should contend for another state championship.
“We’re going to go for four at the 12-year-old level,” he said.
The third championship didn’t come easy. New Albany’s Ray Reisinger and Highland’s Austin Pizer were locked in a scoreless pitcher’s dual — in part, thanks to both team’s defense — through three innings.
Highlander threatened to score in the first after Jason Reis singled and went to second on a wild pitch with one out. However, Camden Scheidt grounded to Tucker Biven at shortstop, who made an outstanding play to throw to Josh Castleman at first base for the putout. Reis then went to third and as he rounded the bag, Castleman gunned him out at third for the final out of the opening frame.
New Albany put runners on first and second with one out in the third, but Pizer struck out Austin Oppel and got Castleman to ground out.
“We hung in there,” Biven said.
“We just kept our heads up and that’s why we won the game,” Meyer explained.
The New Albany players said Highland was definitely the best team the Southern Indiana stars had seen during the entire state tournament run.
“They had better pitching than all the other teams,” New Albany left fielder Jaxon Murphy said. “And they had a lot better hitting. They were just a good team.”
“We played some other great teams, but Highland was the best,” Meyer said.
Reisinger helped his cause with a single to open the top of the fourth. David Newbanks followed with a walk and Luke Vick grounded into a fielder’s choice. Sprigler then produced the game’s first run with a shot down the third-base line that allowed Newbanks to cross home plate.
“I didn’t think it was going to get through because they have a really good third baseman,” Sprigler said. “When it got through, I felt so good. It was one of the biggest plays [in the game]. It got us going.”
With two outs, Jameson Miller-Embry singled to bring home Vick and New Albany led 2-0.
“[In the first three innings] we just couldn’t find gaps,” Meyer said. “We hit the ball hard, though. In the fourth, fifth and sixth innings we hit great. That’s what we’re known for, our hitting. We’re known for everything, actually.”
Highland cut the lead in half by scoring its only run in the fourth when Josiah Wildman’s sacrifice fly plated Reis, who reached base with a single and went to third on Highland’s only extra base hit — a double by Scheidt.
Castleman answered in a big way in the fourth with a bomb over the left-center field fence to make it 3-1.
“It was really big,” Murphy said of the blast. “It got us all pumped up.”
Reisinger reached on the game’s first error to continue the fourth-inning rally. Newbanks hit into a fielder’s choice, but Reisinger went to third on Highland’s second error of the frame.
After Newbanks went to third on a wild pitch, Meyer produced one of the game’s biggest plays when he laid down a perfect bunt. Highland catcher Leo DeLeon waited to pick up the ball to see if it would go foul. Instead, it went dead on top of the third-base line. As DeLeon watched the ball, Newbanks scampered home to score New Albany’s fourth run.
“I was pretty sure it was going to stay fair,” Meyer said. “It was a critical situation with runners on second and third and two outs. David ran great. He hustled down to home. It was huge for me, just to be a part of that huge moment. It was just so awesome.”
“We put Mitchell in and he put it on the line,” Biven said. “It was a great job.”
Vick later scored on a wild pitch to put New Albany in control with a 5-1 advantage.
After Reisinger set Highland down 1-2-3 in the fifth, Reisinger sent a ball into right field to bring home Biven, who had hit his second single earlier in the inning, for a 6-1 New Albany lead.
Castleman entered in the sixth to finish off Highland and immediately got help from his defense when Murphy made a diving catch in the left-center gap.
“I didn’t think I was going to get there standing up, so I just dove and I caught it somehow,” Murphy explained. “It was a really good feeling because it was one out closer to [winning] state.”
“He’s done that all year. That’s why he’s in left field,” Josh Biven said. “He’s a little gamer. That was the play of the game.”
Castleman finished the job without surrendering a hit. He got DeLeon to ground back to the mound to complete the state title with a perfect 11-0 record.
Reisinger went five innings and gave up just four hits and struck out five.
“Pitching was outstanding by Ray and Josh coming into to close the door,” Josh Biven said.
“[Reisinger] pitched great and then Josh, I’m so happy for him,” Meyer said. “He closed out the state championship game.”
Tucker Biven and Reisinger each went 2-for-4, but it was the bottom of New Albany’s lineup that produced big. The bottom three spots got four of New Albany’s 10 hits by four different players in Sprigler, Meyer, Murphy and Nick Sexton.
Of the bottom of the order and the subs, Biven said, “They won us a state championship by doing what they were supposed to do. They had big hits, bunts and played great defense. Honestly, subs are what makes teams.”
NOTE: The print version of the News and Tribune incorrectly spelled New Albany left fielder Jaxon Murphy's first name. It had been published before the mistake was recognized.