BATTLE CREEK — Off the bat, this was a routine play.
As it sailed toward the heavens, though, the reality came into focus.
This was a foul ball taking on a certain angle of chaos, a trajectory that could make even the most sure-handed of defenders clueless and, well, defenseless.
Catcher Nate Gaggin had the only play, and he called for it.
Angling toward the opposing dugout, a havoc in its own right, Gaggin leaned to his left as the ball headed to his right.
His glove went up as he hit the ground, a cloud of dust arose with the hopes and fears of so many there pulling for the Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett baseball team.
And then — silence.
“I just said please, please, please catch it,” coach Dan Cimini recalled.
“I knew he had it,” said senior pitcher Connor Fannon. “Well, I was hoping he had it.”
Gaggin had it.
It was the dramatic final out of the most dramatic final game from the 2013 season, and with it came the second Division 4 state championship for Liggett in the past three years.
“The will to win. The will not to lose with these guys is unbelievable,” Cimini said after the Knights beat Beal City High 3-2 in eight innings. “This game was unbelievable. I’m not going to sleep for two nights.”
For five innings, Liggett failed to record a hit. Gaggin’s walk in the fifth was the first base runner for the Knights, who entered the top of the sixth trailing 1-0.
From that point on, momentum was the objective, but the teams batted it back and forth like a ping-pong ball.
In the sixth, Liggett junior Patrick Broder started the inning with an infield single, advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Cole Zingas, and then scored to tie the game on a throwing error moments later.
In the bottom half of the inning, Beal City loaded the bases with one out, only to see Fannon induce a ground out and a pop out.
Fannon singled with one out in the seventh, giving way to Ian Clark as a courtesy runner.
A walk and a soft single loaded the bases, and Clark came home on a Kevin Allen sacrifice fly shortly after to momentarily put Liggett up by a run.
Beal City answered right back to tie the game, and after leaving the bases loaded, forced extra innings.
After leading off the eighth with a single, Zingas eventually reached third base and scored what turned out to be the game-winning run.
Fannon got Beal City in order in the bottom of the inning, the final out coming on Gaggin’s acrobatic catch.
“Perseverance,” Cimini said to sum up the night. “The fight never stopped. These guys wouldn’t let this game go.”
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Fannon said afterward. He pitched seven innings of one-hit ball in a 1-0 semifinal victory against New Lothrup and then three more innings in the final to earn the win. “It was so important for us to come here and get that second ring.”
The first came in 2011, a 5-1 decision against Merrill High.
A chance at a repeat fell short in 2012 when the Knights dropped the final 4-1 to Decatur High.
“We wanted this one so badly,” Fannon added. “To get back here last year and lose was so tough, but it taught us a lot. I think we learned how to finish games out.”
The seesaw action in the final innings took everyone in C.O. Brown Stadium on a ride they won’t soon forget.
Cimini went from elation to “accepting the fact a runner-up trophy was still a good season,” to charging from the dugout, to be part of the pile near the pitcher’s mound.
How could he even describe the game, or what he was feeling, the coach was asked.
“You can’t,” he quipped back with a smile. “There’s no describing a game like this.”
Except to say the end result is the expectation, moving forward.
Liggett finished the year 31-4, with all four losses coming to D-1 teams.
Evan Auk, Fannon, Gaggin and Allen are the team’s four seniors, but as many as 12 guys could return next spring.
“We want to be back here every year,” Cimini said. “That’s the expectation.”
He hinted at the possibility that the Knights will be jumping to Division 3 next season, almost begging to be asked about Madison Heights Bishop Foley, a young team that won its third D-3 title in a row just hours before Liggett won D-4.
“That’d be great, wouldn’t it?” Cimini said of being the team to dethrone the state’s only champ to win three baseball titles in a row. “We’d love it. We want that challenge. I’d play anybody with this group of guys.”