By all accounts, it was an uncharacteristic game for the Aurora Houn' Dawgs.
They recorded just two hits through the first five innings. They played from behind for the majority of the game. Their star pitcher allowed more earned runs than he had over the entire rest of the season as a whole. The most unlikely hitter flexed his muscles for the game-winning home run.
But one thing about last Friday's Class 4 state championship game was uniquely characteristic of this Aurora team: the never say die attitude.
The same team that just weeks ago came back to win the district championship while down to its final strike pulled off a dramatic, come-from-behind win over Lutheran South to claim its first ever state championship title in baseball, fulfilling a year-long goal.
"It's pretty awesome," said senior catcher Kaleb Baker after the game. "We've been wanting this since we got up here last year and lost, so it's relieving in a way."
But relief did not come easily for Baker and the Houn' Dawgs, as the offense went down in order for the first two innings, and the usually lights-out senior ace Zac Shoemaker struggled to work with a tight strike zone. The lefty walked a season-high eight batters, two of which came around to score.
The Lancers drew the first blood in the bottom of the third inning, as the leadoff hitter drew a walk and later scored on a single, as did the third batter of the inning, who reached base on one of six Lutheran South hits on the day.
Another leadoff walk in the fourth inning eventually came around to score against Shoemaker, putting the Dawgs in a 3-0 hole.
The Lancers again put two men on board via the walk in the bottom of the fifth, as Shoemaker's pitch count reached the 105-pitch maximum, forcing Coach James Hoffman to make a call to the bullpen.
In came junior Austin Erickson, who after the game said his mentality was fairly simple even in such a big moment: "Just throw strikes."
And Erickson did just that, earning a strikeout to end the inning after giving up a single.
With the pitching change, the momentum of the game shifted into Aurora's favor as the Houn' Dawgs were down to their final six outs. Junior leadoff hitter Wyatt Sparks drew a walk of his own to start off the sixth inning before a flyout put Aurora down to its last five outs.
Then junior Matthew Miller did Matthew Miller things, hitting a moonshot home run over the 30-plus-foot high fence in right field to get the Dawgs back into the game.
"It lifted us up," Erickson said of the home run. "But we were still down; we knew we still had to battle."
And battle the Houn' Dawgs did, as the next batter, sophomore Gage Singer, singled to left field and advanced to second on a single by senior Preston Naylor. A sacrifice fly by Shoemaker sent Singer to third before an RBI single by hot-hitting freshman Ryan Cline brought him home for the tying run.
With the score knotted at 3-3, Erickson and the Aurora defense held off a Lutheran South threat in the bottom of the sixth. After a one-out walk, the Dawgs turned a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning with even more momentum going into the final frame.
Then a most unlikely hero came through like he never dreamed he could.
Junior Miah Fisher came into the Final Four with 19 hits on the season -- 18 of them singles. The 5' 9" outfielder is admittedly not a power hitter, but the number nine batter took the first pitch of the seventh inning and snuck it over the right-centerfield fence to give the Houn' Dawgs the lead in the biggest baseball game in school history.
"I didn't think it was possible for me to do that," Fisher said after the game. But it was possible, and it turned out to be the winning run, though Aurora would add another for insurance just three batters later.
After Fisher's home run, Sparks drew a walk and was advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Baker. With Miller at the plate, Sparks moved to third on a wild pitch, scoring on the Lutheran South catcher's errant throw in the attempt to pick him off. With the game at 5-3, Miller flew out and Singer grounded out to send the game to the bottom of the seventh.
Three outs away from a state championship, Erickson and the Houn' Dawgs went back out to the field for one final inning. The junior sat down the first two batters quickly on a flyout and a groundout before giving up a single.
Erickson's "throw strikes" mentality worked to perfection, as the final Lancer batter was caught staring at strike three, ending the game and the season and starting the celebration for Aurora. The Aurora players wasted no time piling on Erickson and Baker in a celebratory dog pile.
"That kind of hurt a bit," said Baker of being at the bottom of his pile of teammates, though that pain was surely nothing compared to the feeling of being a state champion.
"There's no better feeling than being the best team in the state," said Erickson, whose two and a third innings earned him the win.
"I couldn't be more happy for him," said Shoemaker of his teammate.
Although Shoemaker's day did not go exactly the way he likely envisioned it the night before, he summed up the day, his high school career and the Houn' Dawgs' season with one simple phrase:
"It couldn't have ended any better."