Eagles walk-off to state
New Life Academy junior Sam Horner had some motivation pushing him forward as he trudged to the plate at Midway Stadium in the ninth inning on Thursday night – it was standing in the on-deck circle.
There stood his brother, senior John Horner, with cheek severely swollen from catching a foul ball in the face earlier in the game.
“I don’t want this to be the last game I play with my brother,” the younger Horner thought to himself. “I want to live to see another day with him on the field.”
He made sure that happened. Sam Horner smacked a double off of the right field wall to score senior Matt Palkovich from first base, which gave New Life a 7-6 win over Heritage Christian Academy in the Section 4A championship at Midway Stadium and secured a state tournament berth.
“When the pitch came I didn’t really think I just turned on it and it flew and the ball did the rest,” Sam Horner said.
And as he watched Palkovich round third and come home to score, John Horner began jumping around and screaming.
“I think I almost pulled a [hamstring],” he joked. “I was overjoyed.”
Soon after, the Horners and Palkovich were joined in a mob by their teammates as the squad celebrated a day that featured two games, 16 innings and a rain delay over seven hours and ended in a championship.
The day didn’t seem likely to end in the fashion it did. New Life (23-3) had fallen twice already to Heritage, once in the regular season and once earlier in sectional play, by a combined score of 20-5.
“We didn’t play well [in those games]. All the credit to them, they hit the ball really well, but we didn’t pitch well, we didn’t field well,” New Life coach Dave Darr said. “We felt like we hadn’t shown everybody, when we played this team, what we were capable of doing, and I think we did that today.”
Both wins on Thursday required comeback efforts. In the first game, New Life went down 3-0 in the third inning before battling back and trailed 6-4 heading into the seventh inning of game two.
Sam Horner said in the previous two meetings with Heritage, when New Life fell behind everything started to snowball and went downhill for the rest of the game, but New Life wouldn’t allow that to happen in the section final.
Trailing 6-4 in the seventh inning of the second contest, New Life induced two walks before John Horner was hit by a pitch to load the bases with no outs. A wild pitch scored Palkovich to trim the deficit to 6-5. But New Life’s comeback hopes were dampened in the ensuing at-bat as sophomore Simon Killeen lined a screamer to the second baseman which was caught and John Horner was doubled up at second base, leaving two outs with a man at third.
That’s when senior Sam Mazon stepped into the batter’s box and delivered his third hit of the contest – a triple to right centerfield to tie the game and extend New Life’s season.
“That’s senior leadership,” Darr said.
Mazon’s heroics cleared the path for Sam Horner to complete the sectional comeback with his walk-off double two innings later.
“We just battled,” John Horner said. “We got down, but we didn’t hang our heads. We were behind, but not losing. We pulled out the wins and it was a long day.”
In a team huddle following the win, Darr delivered a message to his team: “we’re not done yet.”
New Life still has future plans on its mind – the Eagles want to win state.
It’s a goal they’re now just three wins away from accomplishing as they head to Chaska for the state tournament, starting next Thursday.
“With every team that’s the goal, and we’re there,” Darr said. “I think we’ve got the collective talent where we can do some damage and make some noise.”