Article written by Matt Snyder; CBS Sports: @MattSnyderCBS
INDIANAPOLIS – Let’s start with a trivia question. Actually, let’s go Jeopardy form and make it an answer.
“Who is the 2017 baseball team?”
Yes, Cardinal Ritter can now hoist a State Championship banner alongside the five football State Championship banners.
It could be termed a dream season, sure, but that’s a figure of speech and this was actually a real dream coming to fruition. Head coach Dave Scott woke up in a sweat back in March, having dreamed that he was holding up the State Championship trophy on Victory Field. A few months later, he was doing it in real life, only “the trophy in my dream was much lighter”, he said afterward.
For the senior class, it wasn’t so much a dream as a goal. Maybe even an expectation. They long had their eyes on this one.
“This was our plan, this was our goal since our freshman year,” said shortstop Alex “The Sticky Bandit” Vela. “We knew this was the year that we could actually do it. Just doing it and finishing my career like this at Victory Field is just amazing.”
Capping off an — as Vela said — amazing season, the Raiders took down 2A’s version of a Cinderella story in Wapahani Friday night, 10-4, securing the title.
Unranked Wapahani made it to the championship by taking down a bevy of titans, including top-ranked Lafayette Central Catholic in Regionals, followed by No. 5 Hebron in Semi-State. Toppling the 27-3, No. 3 Raiders would complete the unlikely feat for Hall of Fame coach Brian Dudley and secure him his second State Championship. If that happened, the final chapter in Cardinal Ritter’s storybook season would have ended on a sour note.
The Raiders, however, weren’t having it. This was their year to make history, make dreams come true and achieve their goal. They did just that, playing an outstanding game in several different facets.
Through two innings, aces Blake “Hot Mustard” Malatestinic and Wapahani’s Alec Summers threw zeroes up on the scoreboard. Neither team put up a major scoring threat and it looked like the top of the third would be more of the same for Summers, getting two groundouts to start the inning. Pesky Raiders leadoff man Vela, however, put a hard grounder in the hole between shortstop and third base, beating the throw for an infield single. He would steal his 30th base of the season, moving into scoring position for junior Kyle “Kay Pee-Zee” Price. Price would come through with a single that glanced off Wapahani third baseman Brevan Rivers’ glove and then advance past the outstretched glove of shortstop Chandler Wise. Getting through the infield was all the room Scott would need to wave Vela home and it was 1-0.
Cardinal Ritter wasn’t done with this two-out rally, either. Up next was team RBI leader Jake “The Snake” Kluemper, who crushed a triple off the right field wall. A walk to Malatestinic allowed Scott to plug in Joey “Gamer” Gruber as a pinch runner. Gruber would steal second with Wapahani trying to throw him out, instead coming up short and allowing Kluemper to scamper home for a 3-0 Cardinal Ritter lead. They would leave the bases loaded, but the two-out rally saw six straight hitters reach base, three runs, four stolen bases and the first lead of the game.
The team that came into the game having previously won 90 percent of its games was supremely confident now.
Along the way, note the collectively patient approach of the Cardinal Ritter offense. They were working deep counts and drew three walks in the third inning alone. Summers entered the game with 70 strikeouts against seven walks in 48 2/3 innings. Through the third inning, the Raiders’ approach had Summers up to 73 pitches. On a hot summer night before sunset, that’s already a hefty workload. It was enough for Dudley to get some action going in the Wapahani bullpen. Summers would last just two more hitters. Remember that 70:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio? On this night, Summers walked three while only striking out two. This was a continuation of the way Cardinal Ritter played all season, as they entered the game with 207 walks in 30 games, good for an on-base percentage north of .500 as a team.
In the ensuing half inning, senior shortstop Vela made perhaps the biggest play of the game, both mentally and physically. With a runner on second and one out, Wapahani second baseman Stephen Vickery sent a grounder in the hole between short and third. Vela had to dive to his right to stop the ball, an unbelievable feat in and of itself. He had zero chance at getting Vickery at first base, though, so he instead looked to third baseman Brian “Nails” Bacon and threw the lead runner out. Credit Bacon for making the catch while on the move and finding the runner for the tag as well. Just beautiful execution by both players.
“Instinct,” Vela said afterward about his snap decision. “Coach Scott knows, we do situations in practice everyday. He’s gonna hit one in the hole and I gotta read that runner. Whatever I can do to help the pitcher and help the team win, honestly.”
A possible Wapahani rally now had a runner on first base with two outs and Malatestinic would retire the next hitter for a so-called “shut-down inning.”
The goal, the dream and history were getting closer.
Catcher Dillon “Rube” Olejnik’s first triple of the season came in the top of the fourth and he’d be knocked home by a Vela single to right. Vela would steal his 31st and 32nd bases of the season (breaking a school record). Meantime, Kyle Price and Malatestinic would work walks before Ben “The Jet” Egenolf poked a single up the middle to plate two more runs. It was 6-0 through four innings. The Raiders were creeping up on history ever so surely. Not that it would be easy. Making history never is.
Wapahani would mount a big rally in the bottom of the fifth. An error and infield single were followed by a passed ball and then intentional walk to load the bases. An RBI single and a two-RBI single would cut the lead to 6-3, but left fielder Luke :”The Laser” Shearer would cut down a runner at third on the two-RBI single, a critical out. A fly out and pop out stranded one Wapahani runner and got Cardinal Ritter within six outs of history.
The Raiders would tack on in the top of the sixth, getting all three runs back plus another for good measure. They scored on a bases loaded error and two bases-loaded fielder’s choices. Then with two outs and runners at the corners, Shearer broke for second, watched the Wapahani defense throw through again and would stay in a rundown long enough to get Egenolf home. It was 10-3 and history was creeping even closer along with the dream and the goal.
The 10-3 lead would hold moving to the bottom of the seventh. Malatestinic, the senior Mr. Baseball candidate, had the ball and hadn’t been overworked in the least. He wouldn’t be strained to finish this thing. It was just a matter of executing as a team in order to make school history. Once again, they did so as a team.
A diving catch by Kluemper in center would be the first out. After a double and wild pitch, Wapahani would score a meaningless run during a dazzling play at second by Price for the second out. Vela would then make another dazzling play, this one ranging up the middle and leaving his feet before firing a strike to first base for the final out. Three highlight reel plays on defense to close out the State Championship. Scott said of the plays, “We have a great defense. Price and Kluemper have been outstanding all year and they made terrific plays in the end. But Vela, when that ball was hit up the middle, I knew he would make the play and I knew the game was over. He “web gems” on a nightly basis so we take for granted how amazing they are.”
History. Dream come true. Goal achieved.
For seniors Vela, Bacon, Malatestinic, Autry “Galloping” Gaynor and Brian “Wild Man” Eisele, it was everything they envisioned for four years, even if it might take some time to process. Malatestinic also won the 2A State Mental Attitude Award.
Vela was on base four times with two hits and two walks, scoring three times and stealing four bases. Price also scored three times with a pair of singles. Egenolf as well had two hits. Malatestinic was efficient on the hill, not hitting the 70-pitch mark until the sixth. He would end up allowing four runs (three earned) on nine hits. Thanks to his effort and that of the offense, Scott never even got anyone up in the bullpen.
Malatestinic was so efficient he felt like he had plenty left in the tank. Scott said of Malatestinic’s outing, “We know we are always in a good place when Blake is on the mound. He has worked hard for four years to be able to go the distance in every game he pitches, so there was no doubt that he would go CG in the biggest game of his career.”
“Feels good,” Malatestinic said when asked about how his right arm feels. “I feel like I could go about four more.”
Cardinal Ritter left no doubt in this one. They played a complete all-around game against a tough-as-nails underdog. There were the two triples. There were deep counts, walks and nine hits. There were great plays on defense, fittingly with all three outs in the seventh coming in that fashion. Malatestinic was good on the hill — even in the inning where Wapahani scored three, the hits were more of the “seeing eye” variety than hit overly hard. Offensively, the Raiders worked deep counts, drawing seven walks. They ran the bases superbly, taking the extra base when possible and stealing eight bases. It was a true championship effort.
That’s what the 2017 Cardinal Ritter Raiders are: Champions. State champions, to be specific. The dream had come to fruition. The goal and possibly expectation of a senior class was realized.
They’re also now the answer to a pretty cool trivia question.
What a night. What a season. What a team.
Check out a video of the game winning play by Vela and the celebration by clicking the link below: