North Central Caps Off Dramatic Series With Comeback Win
By JOHN NEWTON
Register Sports Editor
(Published on June 2, 2001 in The Denton Record-Chronicle and The Gainesville Daily Register.)
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Kevin Smiley was ready for them this time.
When his North Central Texas College teammates charged out of their dugout and headed right for the sophomore closer they had one intention — to knock him down and pile on.
It was the ninth inning and Smiley, of Rowlett, had just delivered the biggest pitch of his life, sealing the 2001 NJCAA National Championship with a strikeout of Dixie State (Utah) College’s Trevor Heid in the top of the ninth inning Saturday night, delivering a 7-6 victory into the hands of his Lions.
“The game of my life that I had been dreaming about forever was on the line,” Smiley said. “The tying run was at second base and I wanted this more than anything. And it worked for the best. It worked out.”
Adding to his teammates’ joy was pure relief for Smiley, who recorded three consecutive outs after the potential tying run reached first base. When Heid swung and missed at a low fastball, the runner was stranded at second base and the Lions were national champions.
Saturday’s finale of the 2001 Alpine Bank Junior College World Series at Sam Suplizio Field was a game of heroes and dramatic comebacks.
Smiley finished what his North Central teammates started in the bottom of the eighth inning. Trailing 6-5, the Lions loaded the bases with two outs when Josh Fitzgerald singled to right field, Todd Stansberry walked and sophomore Blake Justice was hit in the head by a fastball. After a few moments of grogginess, Justice got up and walked to first, setting up a heroic scene for Puerto Rican freshman Natanael Mora and triggering weird feelings for Justice.
“It was deja vu,” he said. “I had a dream that this would happen about two months ago. It was so weird. I just fell on the ground and I was like, ‘I cannot believe what just happened.’”
Justice, named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, was hit twice in the game.
With the bases loaded, Mora hit the first pitch he saw and delivered a two-run single to center field to give North Central a 7-6 lead and send the game into the hands of the closer Smiley, who picked up his 15th save of the season.
I just told myself, ‘You’ve done this before. You have to make this happen right now. You’re not afraid of this guy,’” said Mora, who was 2-for-5 in the game with three RBI.
The big hit and strikeout capped a long, hard road to the national championship for North Central (53-15). The Lions, making their first appearance at the World Series, won a tournament-record six consecutive games after falling into the loser’s bracket on May 26 after an extra-inning loss to Central Alabama.
“Coming into this thing I’m pretty sure people has us as underdogs,” said sophomore Bryan Stamp, who threw three and one-third innings Saturday. “Nobody thought we would get this far. We knew we could do it all along.”
That confidence became the strength of the team, as both the offense and pitching staff got stronger as the tournament went along. On Saturday, both elements combined with strong defense and some Dixie miscues to bring victory.
North Central was able to strike first, scoring two runs on three hits in the bottom of the first inning. Justice led off with a hit by pitch, stole second and took third on an errant throw. Mora then slapped a single to right field to score Justice. After a Danny Gibbons single and a double play, Josh Boop singled home Mora to give the Lions a 2-0 lead.
North Central starter Wes Cain started out hot, striking out the first batter he faced and sending the Rebels down in order in the first. However, the sophomore had control problems in the second and third innings, loading the bases in the second inning before walking in a run, then surrendering a two-run home run to Dixie first baseman Jake Jordinson after another walk in the third.
North Central tied it up in the fourth inning thanks in large part to a pair of Dixie errors. Boop reached on a throwing error, then scored when shortstop Craig Stansberry hit a double to left field that was mishandled by the left fielder.
Stansberry tried to score on a chopper to third, but was ejected when he collided with Dixie catcher Wick Udy during a play at the plate. The NJCAA has a slide rule that forces runners to slide whenever there is a play at a base.
Because of Stansberry’s absence, NCTC head coach Kevin Darwin substituted sophomore Josh Fitzgerald at third base and moved Mora to shortstop, a position he played early in the season.
The tied game did not last long, for Dixie took advantage of reliever Bryan Stamp’s wildness to score a run in the top of the fifth inning and seize a 4-3 lead. A walk and a throwing error by catcher Jeff Martin sent Ben Fox to third base with none out. He scored on a groundout by Brock Jacobsen.
Stamp, who came in for Cain to begin the fifth, walked two and hit a batter in the inning but escaped with minimal damage. He rebounded to send the side down in order in the sixth.
Cain, of Marietta, Okla., went four innings and surrendered three runs on six hits and struck out five. He walked three and hit one batter. He was named All-Tournament after throwing 13 innings over two appearances and striking out 14.
North Central rebounded in the sixth to score twice and drive Rebel pitcher J. T. Sherman out of the game. The Dixie defense also aided in the Lion cause, committing two more errors.
Boop opened the inning by reaching on a fielding error by Rebel third baseman Dan Polhamus. After being sacrificed to second by Fitzgerald and a fielder’s choice by Martin, Boop scored on a pinch-hit single to right by Tim Fatheree. Todd Stansberry then sacrificed courtesy runner Jeremy Roy home with a deep fly to right field. NCTC led 5-4 after the sixth inning.
The Dixie defense continued to self-destruct in the seventh inning. Mora ended up on second base after he led off with a bunt that was thrown away by pitcher Fox. However, the Lions could not get him home and led by one heading into the eighth inning.
That lead would not last, for Rebel outfielder Trevor Heid blasted the first pitch he saw from Stamp over the left field bleachers for a 410-foot solo home run.
Sophomore Aaron Gravis, working on one day’s rest, replaced Stamp and walked Taylor Pullins. After a stolen base, Pullins came home on a “no man’s land” bloop double by Jordinson to left field to give Dixie a 6-5 lead.
But the scariest moment for the Lions came in the bottom of the eighth inning, when Justice was hit in the face by a pitch with two runners on and two out. After being attended to, the sophomore from Mesquite walked to first and play resumed with the bases loaded.
That scary moment set up the heroics for Mora and, eventually, Smiley, who struck out the game’s final two batters.
NOTES — Justice, Gibbons and Craig Stansberry were also named All-Tournament. … The attendance at Saturday’s final was 9,433, which was several hundred seats below stadium capacity.