SOUTH BEND | So close.
One strike away from a trip to the Class 2A state finals, Hebron saw the South Bend Semistate title slip through its hands Saturday at Coveleski Stadium.
Down to its last out and strike with a runner on second in the bottom of the ninth, Northfield scratched out the tying and winning runs to wrest a 5-4 victory from the Hawks.
"I don't think we're a loser. We just don't get to play next week," Hebron coach John Steinhilber said. "It was a heck of a battle, back and forth. There are no failures in the red. We left it on the field. I'll take my guys any day. I'm proud of 'em."
On the brink of the win, Damon Wallace had a two-out, 0-2 count on Adam Roser, only to have two borderline pitches called balls, including the full-count offering that sent Roser to first.
"I thought we got squeezed twice," Steinhilber said. "It should've been strike three."
After Tanner Chamberlain singled in the tying run, Hebron intentionally walked Andy Roser. Ryan Keaffaber hit a bouncer to first that caught Cody Hayes in between hops on the springy synthetic turf and caromed away, scoring the game-winner.
"It was an easy play. I should've had it," Hayes said. "The runner was in front of me, so I didn't know what hop it was going to take. I thought we had it."
The play made a winner of Keaffaber (15-0), who went nine innings on the mound, fanning 10.
"I was struggling at the plate all day," Keaffaber said. "I was just trying to put the ball in play and it took a good hop in the turf."
Hayes put in a Herculean effort on the mound, battling himself and the jumpy strike zone to the tune of 147 pitches over 7 1/3 innings.
"His curve ball wasn't getting called so he had to throw a lot of fastballs," Steinhilber said.
He struck out 13 and walked seven, leaving the bases loaded three times in the first four innings.
"I had a hard time with the calls," Hayes said. "I battled as much as I could."
Northfield (28-5) notched a pair of unearned runs in the second but Hebron answered with a three-run third, all the scoring coming after two outs. Hayes flared a single to left to bring around Wallace. After Alex Anderson's infield single, Kyle Hernandez gapped a double to left center to bring home Hayes and Anderson.
The Norse tied it in the bottom half of the third and the score remained 3-3 into the ninth. They left the bags loaded for a fourth time in the eighth inning.
Hebron (20-9) went in front in the top of the ninth when Jon Moneta's single to center scored Kyle Joyce.
"I thought we had a great approach against (Keaffaber)," Steinhilber said. "The more we saw him, the more I liked how we were adjusting. We battled. He's 15-0 for a reason."
Joyce and Moneta both had two hits for the Hawks.
"There's not much to say," Joyce said. "It sucked to be that close. It hurts. I won't forget this feeling. I'll use it as motivation to try to get as good as possible and hopefully lead the team next year."