Lumen Christi Rallies Late, Watervliet Quickly Comes Back in McLane Openers

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

June 13, 2024

EAST LANSING — Jackson Lumen Christi head coach Phil Clifford said halfway through this season his team adopted a mantra of “Find a way.”

But even this seemed a little extreme.

Lumen Christi was down to its last strike in Thursday’s opening Division 3 Semifinal against Charlevoix, and trailed by two runs. 

Over the next handful of minutes, however, Lumen Christi indeed found a way, rallying to earn a 3-2 victory and a trip to Saturday’s championship game where the Titans will attempt to win their first title since 2015. 

The home team, Lumen Christi saw No. 8 hitter Timmy Crowley (hit by pitch) and No. 9 hitter Jack Fitzpatrick (single) get on base to start the seventh inning. 

Charlevoix starter Bryce Johnson retired the next two batters, but then Lumen Christi junior Brodie Gregory hit a ground ball on a two-strike count that took a hop past the shortstop near second base to score Crowley and make it 2-1. 

Lumen Christi then tied the game at 2-2 when junior Kash Kalahar hit a grounder that eluded the third baseman and scored Fitzpatrick.

That brought up freshman Benny Gaston, who hit a grounder in the hole between first and second base to score Gregory and give Lumen Christi what had seemed only moments before an improbable win.

“We’ve had a lot of close games throughout the Catholic League and the state tournament, and they just seem to find a way,” Clifford said. “They never give up, and they always believe they can do it.” 

Gaston ended up with the lone RBI of the day for Lumen Christi (30-10).

“I went to bed last night going through every situation in my head,” Gaston said. “Just trying to find a way for my team. Just do anything for my team to win.”

It was the cruelest of defeats for Charlevoix (27-11-1), which was that close to making its first trip to a championship game. Johnson ended up allowing just five hits and no earned runs over 6 2/3 innings. 

“That’s part of the game,” Rayders coach Steve Spegl said. “There’s got to be a winner, and there’s got to be a loser. We fought hard for 6 2/3 innings and just had a couple slip through. One of our sayings is that ‘we never lose, but we learn.’ We learned a lot today.” 

Charlevoix took a 1-0 lead during the second inning on an RBI double by junior Hunter Lemerand, and then went up 2-0 in the fourth on an RBI single by Johnson. 

Charlevoix had the bases loaded with no outs, but Lumen Christi starter Gabe King pitched out of jam without surrendering more runs. 

Lumen Christi had runners on first and third with one out in the fourth, but the inning ended on a lineout to third that turned into a double play. 

The Titans put the leadoff man on the fifth, but that inning ended on another double play, this time on a flyout to right when the runner took off and couldn’t get back to first in time after the ball was caught. 

In the sixth inning, Lumen Christi put their first two batters on base, but a 5-3 double play and a strikeout by Johnson once again got Charlevoix back to the dugout with no damage done. 

But those halted rallies ended up not mattering, as Lumen Christi lived up to its mantra and found a way in the seventh.

Click for the full box score.

Watervliet 7, Detroit Edison 2 

Watervliet senior pitcher Wyatt Epple probably felt like he was on the ropes in Thursday’s second Division 3 Semifinal. In the bottom of the first inning, Edison took a 1-0 lead on three straight singles – senior Jordan Jones driving in the run – and had two runners on base with nobody out. 

“They pounded the ball that first inning,” Epple said. “I didn’t know what the rest was going to look like.”

Watervliet’s Owen Epple (5) and Edison catcher Zaire Clement follow the ball during their Semifinal.As it turned out, the rest of the game turned out to be a remarkable recovery.

After pitching out of that first inning jam allowing no further runs, Epple was in control the rest of the way for Watervliet in a 7-2 victory.

Epple allowed no runs and just two hits for 5 2/3 innings after the first before allowing back-to-back singles with two outs in the seventh inning. 

By then, the game was all but decided.

“Trusting my fastball I think was the biggest thing,” Epple said. “In the first inning, they were hitting the off-speed pretty well. I trusted the fastball a little more in the next inning and the innings after. It worked.”

Edison head coach Mark Brown lamented the lost opportunity in the first inning.

“I thought in the first inning, we had a really good opportunity to get ahead in the game and put some pressure on them,” he said. “We let them off the hook. As the game progressed, they gained confidence. We didn’t hit the baseball in situations, and they did.”

Watervliet (30-7) advanced to the championship game for the first time in school history.

“Our message the past couple of weeks is to have a loose focus,” Watervliet head coach Josh Tremblay said. “We can’t get uptight or overwhelmed with what is going on. Just have fun and do what we do.” 

Watervliet struck for three in the top of the third inning, first tying the game at 1-1 on an RBI double down the left-field line by junior Owen Epple. The Panthers took a 2-1 lead on an RBI sacrifice fly by senior Alex Hicks, and then went up 3-1 on an RBI double by sophomore Caleb Jewell. 

Edison loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth inning, but Epple induced a flyout to end the threat. Watervliet then loaded the bases with nobody out in the fifth and took a 4-1 lead on a sacrifice fly by Hicks. Jewell plated another on an RBI single to left to make it 5-1 Panthers. 

The Panthers added insurance during the seventh inning on a third RBI sacrifice fly by Hicks that made it 6-1. Epple scored on a wild pitch to make it 7-1 Panthers. 

Edison (25-12) added a run in the seventh on another RBI single by Jones.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Lumen Christi’s Benny Gaston smashes the game-winning hit during the seventh inning of Thursday’s first Division 3 Semifinal. (Middle) Watervliet’s Owen Epple (5) and Edison catcher Zaire Clement follow the ball during their Semifinal.