LAPORTE | Taylor Lehnert threw his glove in the air, hugged his catcher and ran outside the foul line to avoid the pile-on.
He waited until teammates toppled Austen Wagoner and Alec Olund and created a blue and white mini mountain of teenagers. Then the winning pitcher jumped on top, which is where state No. 1 Lake Central remains after beating Penn 3-1 in the Class 4A LaPorte Regional final for its first regional title since 2004.
“I’m so proud of the competitiveness of this team,” Lehnert said.
“They never quit. It feels really good to finally get out of here. It was good to get back here and finally win it.”
After Jimmy McNamara threw a gem in the semifinal to avenge last year’s upset loss to Elkhart Central, fellow Central Michigan recruit Lehnert responded with a three-hitter with seven strikeouts Saturday night at Schreiber Field.
Lake Central (30-1) will know its geographical destination for next Saturday’s semistate matchup with Zionsville sometime today.
On Saturday night, the Indians played to expectations with the help of just a few clutch hits and some close escapes by Lehnert.
The senior hurler threw his fastball in the low 90 mph range and worked his slider in and out of the zone, although a few slips led to four hit batsmen.
After Penn (22-11), which scored 14 runs in its semifinal win over Valparaiso, scored an unearned run in the second inning and had two hits in the third, Lehnert allowed just three base runners and no hits. He stranded six runners in the first three innings.
Penn crowded the plate, and the final out of the first inning was a called strike that a player leaned into, ending the inning with the bases loaded. The typically even-keel Lehnert was noticeably enthused by the call.
“What can you say about Taylor?” L.C. coach Jeff Sandor said moments before a water bucket bath.
“The big guy wants the ball, and he put it to them pretty good.
“He’s a stud. I don’t have anything else to say about it.”
On a night where the top three hitters went 2-for-8, Lake Central scored all three of its runs in the third. Wagoner singled to score Ryan Burvan, and senior No. 6 hitter Anthony Fushi singled with two outs to score two runs.
“That was a big adrenaline boost and helped us going out on defense in the next inning,” Fushi said. “It was pretty cool to come up with that hit. I didn’t have an opportunity like that last year.”
L.C. had seven hits, none after the third inning. Penn starter Chad Whitmer had eight strikeouts and one walk.
“We’ve got a target on our backs, and everyone is going to bring everything they have against us,” Fushi said. “It’s good to be No. 1 and regional champions.”
This season began with high expectations, which ballooned as the Indians cracked the USA Today and ESPN.com national Top 25 poll and the No. 1 ranking in the Midwest.
“Regardless of what happens and will happen, this season is a success,” Sandor said. “We’re thrilled to have five more practices and play in the semistate.”