Dragons come up short in regional title game

Don’t flinch.

You can strike out, you can boot a ground ball, and you can lose a key player to injury, but you don’t flinch.

Shawn Lyons preached these words to his team after nearly every game because he has endured enough postseasons to know: When adversity strikes, and it always will, the first team to lose focus is the one going home.

For four postseason games, Lyons’ New Palestine baseball team weathered every obstacle hurled at it. Injuries, errors and missteps all took their turns trying to knock New Palestine off course, but the Dragons were the picture of resilience, steady as a rock.

In the Bishop Chatard Sectional semifinals, they gave away two runs late to the host team, yet rallied in the sixth and seventh to pull of a dramatic victory.

They squandered early chances against Brebeuf Jesuit in the sectional championship game only to post three runs in the sixth and take home the crown.

Down to their final three outs and trailing by two in Saturday morning’s Crawfordsville Regional semifinal, New Palestine didn’t succumb to the anxiety of the moment. Instead, it patiently waited for Frankfort to break and leave an opening. When the Hot Dogs did, the Dragons, composed as ever, pounced and scored three runs en route to a regional championship berth.

“Nothing was easy,” Lyons said. “We had to grind everything out. We didn’t flinch.”

Until Saturday night.

In the regional championship tilt against West Vigo, the Dragons scratched and clawed for five full innings, and then they could battle adversity no longer.

New Palestine finally faced an obstacle too tall to overcome, and they fell to the Vikings 8-3.

“It was one thing after another tonight,” Lyons said. “Once a couple things went against us, it just kind of snowballed.”

The Vikings (26-4) jumped out to quick 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first on a line-shot home run off the bat off David Inman.

New Palestine (21-12) responded to tie the game in the top of the fourth, when Braden Roberts cracked an RBI-triple into the right-center field gap.

The Vikings then posted a couple runs in their half of the inning to take a 3-1 lead, but again New Palestine found a way to answer.

Leadoff hitter Andy Edwards poked a single through the right side of the infield and came around to score on a West Vigo error to trim the lead 3-2.

The Vikings then collected three straight hits to begin the fifth chasing Dragons starter Hogan Fulkerson, who allowed four earned runs during 41/3 innings.

Cody Chandler relieved Fulkerson and notched two quick outs to put a cap on what could have been an explosive inning for the Vikings, who instead had to settle for one run and a 4-2 lead.

Once again, the feisty Dragons found a way to cut the lead in half, when Evan Fitzgerald connected on a line-shot single up the middle to score Zach Lovell in the sixth.

That, however, was the closest New Palestine would get.

Chandler induced a fly ball to record the first out of the bottom of the sixth inning, then walked a batter before tragedy struck.

While following through on a pitch, Chandler landed awkwardly on his left leg and crumpled to the ground in pain.

After the game, Lyons said they were not sure what exactly happened, only that Chandler felt a pop somewhere near his hamstring.

With Zach Lovell spent after pitching a complete game earlier in the day, and Andy Edwards already on the bench with a twisted ankle, the Dragons were forced to put Keegan Watson in a nearly impossible situation. The sophomore was called in from right field to pitch for the first time in more than two weeks.

After only a few warm-up pitches, Watson struggled to locate the strike zone. A couple of walks and wild pitches later, the game was all but over.

“It’s a tough sport for anybody to come in,” senior catcher Evan Hickman said. “It’s just tough. If Cody hadn’t gotten hurt, it probably would have been a whole different game.”

The Dragons sent three batters to the plate in the seventh, before West Vigo closed the door and ended New Palestine’s season.

The Vikings mobbed their pitcher at the mound, celebrating in the same fashion the Dragons had just a week early at the culmination of their sectional run. This time, though, the Dragons were forced to watch.

“I’m proud of them. I told them it’s painful now and it should be,” Lyons said minutes after consoling a group of young men with tears in their eyes. “But it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.”

The Dragons’ will lose Chandler, Hickman, Edwards, Wes McBride, Tyler Woodcock and Logan Gilvin to graduation. The senior class finished with three sectional championships, two regional titles and a career record of 85-40.

“It’s been a great ride,” Hickman said. “Getting to be a New Pal Dragon is something special because it’s family. It’s a huge honor to represent these colors and this team. I’m going to miss it.”