Eagles senior shortstop Matt Palkovich knew it the second he let it go.
“The feeling was unbelievable,” Palkovich said. “I just started screaming. Everyone just piled on top of each other and it was unbelievable. It was the best feeling I’ve ever felt.”
New Life Academy (25-4) had just topped New York Mills 5-4 in the Class A state final at Target Field on Monday afternoon.
It was the fourth time in the last six games New Life was involved in a one-run game. It was the fourth time in the last six games New Life came out the victor.
“We learned how to win those games,” Darr said. “You get a little nervous at times, but no one hangs their head.”
That’s because the Eagles are like a family on and off the field, Palkovich said.
“We picked each other up,” he said. “Even when someone got down on themselves, we brought them back up. It was a good family, loving atmosphere. I truly think that’s why we came back every time.”
Every player was needed on the diamond on Monday, as the Eagles collected seven hits, one apiece from seven different players. New Life only committed one error, far and away its best defensive performance of the tournament.
“They were confident they could make the play,” Darr said. “You want guys to want the ball and I think we did that.”
That united performance spotted the Eagles a 5-0 lead in the top of the second as Palkovich and junior Sam Horner both knocked in two runs.
But New York Mills (25-1), who was undefeated coming into the title game, responded with one run in the second inning and three in the fourth to trim the deficit to 5-4 heading into the fifth.
That’s when Sam Horner stepped onto the mound in relief of his older brother, senior John Horner.
Sam Horner, who had thrown eight innings just two days earlier in the section semifinal, knew he was ready to pitch again on Monday.
“I was ready more than ever,” he said. “My mindset was I wanted to throw. So no matter how sore I felt, I was going to do it, and it felt great.”
Of course, he had a little help between innings as well. He said his aunt, a physical therapist, rubbed out his arm between frames.
Sam Horner was able to shut out New York Mills in each of the final three innings, and the Eagles earned their first championship in school history.
And as the rest of his players flooded out of the dugout and toward the field, Darr stepped aside and watched the celebration from afar with a big smile on his face.
“It felt best just to see that and see the excitement that they had on their faces and the joy,” he said. “As I sit back I go ‘wow.’ I don’t know if I’ll ever get here again.”
He doesn’t know because he recognized the enormity of the feat his team had just accomplished. There are 150 teams in Class A, and after all was said and done, New Life was the only team left standing in the program’s first state appearance. This was the goal the Eagles set for themselves at the beginning of the season, and on Monday, they achieved it.”
“It’s the best way to wrap it up,” John Horner said. “To win state … it’s amazing.”
Eagles top defending state champ, advance to final
New Life junior Sam Horner didn’t make any bones about it -- he was nervous.
“You’re supposed to be real confident,” he said. “But that was hard to do leading up to this game.”
Horner watched on Thursday as BOLD practiced. He saw the big bodies He witness BOLD accumulate 14 hits en route to scoring eight runs. He knew the Warriors were the defending state champs.
“I’m just thinking ‘man, if they get a hold of me, they’re going to be hitting all day,’” he said.
So he made sure they didn’t.
Horner tossed eight innings, allowing just two hits and zero earned runs as he propelled New Life past the No. 1 seed via a 3-2 eight-inning victory last Friday at Chaska Athletic Park.
“I don’t know how I did it,” Horner said. “I think God directed my balls today. Somehow I was able to keep the ball on the outer half of the plate pretty much all day, which is something I usually can’t do. I’m more like ‘please be a strike’ and just throw it in, but somehow I was able to keep it right on the outer corner or just off a little bit. ... Mostly I just kept locating well is what did it for me today.”
New Life wins state opener
You would have to excuse New Life senior John Horner if you’re standing to his right and he doesn’t notice you.
“It’s a little blurry sometimes,” he said.
Horner suffered a severe bruise on his right cheek during New Life’s sectional final win over Heritage Academy two weeks ago when he fouled a ball off of his face, leaving his cheek swollen to the size of a baseball.
But it was his eye suffering the consequences a week later. Horner’s right eye was blood-shot and badly bruised last Thursday during the Eagles state quarterfinal matchup against Springfield.
Still, that didn’t stop Horner from taking the mound, and it certainly didn’t stop him from dominating.
Horner tossed a complete game, allowing just two runs, none earned, as No. 4 New Life beat No. 5 Springfield 8-2 last Thursday at Chaska Athletic Park.
“He’s a beast,” senior Alex Busch said. “He can always throw, even with one eye.”