Jack Kenny, this year's winner of the North Platte Legion Baseball's Leadership Award led by example in a big way on Friday by getting the walk-off hit in North Platte's 6-5 win over Hastings to open districts at Bill Wood Field.
"Everyone's got nerves but we knew we were going to come out on top," Kenny said. "We knew we had to get on, then move the guy over and do what we needed to win. We were pretty confident."
Earlier this week, North Platte Seniors coach Rick Ostergard told the Bulletin that Friday's district opener was the biggest game in the tournament outside of the championship. With the victory, the First Nationals have Saturday off as they await the winner of the game between Twin Cities and Kearney. Hastings will play Lexington in an elimination game on Saturday, as well.
Friday's win showed the effort Ostergard said he was hoping and expecting to see from his team.
"They do such an awesome job when they want to play," he said. "When they play like they did tonight, this is the result you get."
The game started out as a pitcher's dual but plenty of fireworks were provided in the dramatic later innings.
Hastings (24-17) scored the first run of the game off of pitcher Darian Allberry when Braedon Valentine executed a suicide squeeze play as Mason Spilinek came home from third base.
But North Platte (31-17) responded in the bottom half of the inning. Alec Wesslund came up to bat against pitcher Zach Merrill with the bases loaded.
It was the second time the First Nationals had the bases loaded in the game. In the second inning, Ty Brockmoller reached with a bunt single to load the bases with nobody out. But Merrill escaped after he got Marcus Silos to hit into a double play and Jace Barker to pop out.
But in the fourth, Wesslund didn't come up empty. He hit an infield single toward third base to tie the game. Then Kenny gave North Platte the lead with a two-run single to left field.
Allberry threw two more scoreless innings and then both teams started to dual it out at the plate. In the seventh inning, Hastings cut the lead to 3-2 on a sacrifice fly ball after Sam Reimer was robbed of a single by Wesslund, who made a diving catch.
But in the next inning, Hastings got the big hit they were looking for when Brooks Asher singled up the middle with one out to tie the game. Jon Blazer then reached on the third error by Barker at second base to score another run and Hastings took the lead 4-3.
The lead didn't last long. Alex Panganiban came in to pitch in the bottom of the eighth after Merrill threw over 120 pitches in six and two-thirds innings. Alex Mendoza briefly spelled Merrill in the seventh to get the third out of the seventh. Against Panganiban, Luke Volz and Allberry got on which set up Drew Callaghan to score both of them with a triple to left-center and North Platte had the lead going into the ninth.
In the ninth with Allberry still throwing past the 100-pitch mark, Broc Dreher and Jamison Cockrell got one out base hits. Then Panganiban smashed one to right-center to score Dreher. Cockrell was poised to score as well to give Hastings the lead. But Wesslund threw the ball to Callaghan who gunned Cockrell out at the plate and the game remained tied. Allberry then got the third out and it was still tied at five runs, apiece.
"For Darian to throw a complete nine inning game is a big accomplishment," Ostergard said. "We he gets to the 80-pitch limit, he usually bottoms out and that was the case again tonight. But he battled through it and he put us in position to win."
Silos led off the bottom of the ninth with a ground ball that was cut off by Reimer, the shortstop, but he still beat Reimer's throw and the Nationals had the winning run on base.
Barker got him to second on a sacrifice bunt and then Wesslund popped out to leave it all up to Kenny.
Kenny hit a fly ball fairly deep into right field. Cockrell, the rightfielder, had moved in toward the infield. But when he realized that the ball was going to go much further than he thought, he backtracked. He put his glove up but the ball was beyond his grasp and the First Nationals won the game.
"I hit it to right field and I knew I hit it good," Kenny said. "I saw their rightfielder run after the ball and I was nervous that he would make the catch when he stuck out his glove. But when it went over him, I was excited."
Ostergard said that Kenny is one of those players he wants to see at the plate in crucial situations because he has a knack for delivering.
"It played out the way we wanted it," he said. "We had the perfect guy up in that spot. I can't say enough about what Jack has done for our team, not only tonight, but for this season."