GENEVA – Shea Gaffney, while flexing, let out a defining roar as he stood on first base.
Gaffney, Glenbard North’s senior, smacked a go-ahead two-run single off off Daniel Strohm in relief to put the icing on the Panthers’ unlikely comeback, stunning Geneva 8-6 in Thursday’s Class 4A Geneva Regional semifinal.
At game’s end, upon re-entering the dugout, Gaffney was doused in a water bath to put the exclamation point on the Panthers’ surging season.
“We’re a bunch of guys that have been playing with each other since we were 9-10 years old,” Gaffney said. “That’s where I came in [with the mindset of] in this game. I don’t want to stop playing with these boys.”
“I love them to death,” Gaffney continued. “I didn’t want to lose.”
The Panthers (16-14) advance to Saturday’s 10 a.m. regional final, where they will play Lake Park in going for the program’s first regional title title since 2015.
Geneva (18-11) chased Panthers’ starter Aagam Shah before he could even record an out in the first inning after allowing a pair of two-run home runs to Nate Stempowski and Ryan Huskey.
The Panthers got a run back on the fourth after Gaffney scored from third after an error at second, but the Vikings pushed across two more runs in the bottom half of the inning on Stempowski’s RBI groundout and Blake Stempowski’s RBI double.
Glenbard North, however, wasn’t ready for its season to be done.
“We’ve been playing really good baseball here in the last three, three-and-a-half-weeks,” Panthers coach Rich Smelko said. “We were down 4-0 in the first inning and we just talked about just chipping away. We did that. Hobbs came in [pitching] relief and did a great job.”
After Vikings pitcher Daniel Alworth walked three consecutive batters to open the fifth, Gaffney singled in a run to start a three-run rally.
Shah reached on an error, and the throw home was offline, allowing enough time for two runs to score to close Glenbard North within 6-4. Alworth was able to salvage a popout, but Matt Betancourt’s infield single brought in another run to suddenly make it a one-run game.
Geneva was unable to push across a run despite base runners on second and third in the fifth. With one out, Alworth smashed a grounder to third and Carson Sprague was cut down with the play at the plate to disallow a Vikings insurance run. Another groundout ended the rally opportunity.
“It’s been a long season. I’ve thrown a lot of pitches this year,” Alworth said, admitting he ran out of gas in his final start. “I’m disappointed we lost. I’m excited in the offseason to just get back to work and work on my game.”
Glenbard North then kept up its momentum.
In the sixth, Vikings relief pitcher Fabian Lewis was lifted after the Panthers loaded the bases and two outs for Huskey. With Steve Hobbs at the plate, he initially appeared to be hit by a pitch to open the count – which would’ve tied the game – but the home plate umpire disallowed him to take his base.
“[The umpire] said I kind of leaned into it [in the box],” Hobbs said. “My knee went into it and I didn’t move out of the way, pretty much.”
Hobbs had to re-take his place at the plate. The junior eventually worked a 3-2 count and was walked in dramatic fashion to tie the game at 6-6.
Gaffney’s hit and save by Josh Christman finished the job with a clean seventh inning.
“Give them credit for competing the whole way through,” Geneva coach Brad Wendell said. “They never gave up. They made good plays late in the game. We didn’t get a hit late in the game. We didn’t make a play late in the game. [Gaffney], one of the better hitters in the [DuKane] Conference, stepped up and hit one off the better arms [Strohm] in the conference.”
“I appreciate my guys’ effort in everything they do,” Wendell continued. “We play hard all the time, I believe, and I’m proud of the way we came out and competed. Obviously, we wanted it to go a different way and we wish we would’ve had a few more base hits late in the game. We hit the ball hard, a lot of times, right at them. And that’s kind of how sometimes the game goes.”