Lakenheath breaks through for historic win
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Meet the new royalty of DODEA-Europe baseball: the Lakenheath Lancers.
Lakenheath beat the Kaiserslautern Raiders 9-6 in the 2018 DODEA-Europe Division I championship game Saturday, just hours after ending the Ramstein Royals’ five-year title reign with an 8-7 semifinal victory.
That turn of events amounts to a new era for DODEA-Europe Division I baseball. The championship game was the first final in the division’s nine-year baseball history to not include Ramstein as a participant. It produced the first championship for a school other than Ramstein or Stuttgart, formerly known as Patch.
Based on its sixth seed in the nine-team tournament, Lakenheath seemed an unlikely catalyst for such a seismic shift in the terrain of the Division I diamond. The Lancers knew they had it within them regardless of their placement in the bracket.
“We knew we were capable of more,” Lakenheath coach Kelly Stacy said. “It’s one thing about knowing it, it’s another thing about showing it.”
Lakenheath showed it, and earned its championship, via a key sequence of events across the fifth and sixth innings.
Kaiserslautern mounted a significant threat in the bottom of the fifth with the score tied at five runs apiece. But Lakenheath pitcher Michael Nighbert, who earlier smacked a three-run home run, notched an inning-ending strikeout in an extraordinarily high-leverage situation: bases loaded, with a full count and a Raider runner encroaching up the base path towards home.
To add to the pressure, a run in that situation would have essentially been a walk-off win for Kaiserslautern, as the game’s 110-minute time limit expired immediately after the inning’s final out.
Nighbert deflected credit to what he called “the best defense in Europe,” and offered a self-deprecating explanation for his poise.
“I’m in these situations a lot,” Nighbert said. “I’m not the best pitcher out there.”
The Lancers took advantage of their fresh opportunity in the top of the sixth. Will Batykefer slapped a bases-loaded single to break the tie, and Jordan Harris and Jaxon Tomchesson produced insurance runs via groundouts to give Lakenheath a 9-5 lead entering the final half-inning.
The Raiders loaded the bases again on their last opportunity, but managed to plate only one run.
The gritty performance was particularly impressive because the Lancers had to refocus so quickly after their triumphant ouster of the dynastic Royals earlier Saturday. Lancer senior Tomchesson, who had the game-winning hit to knock off Ramstein, said that wasn’t an issue.
“Ever since the beginning of the season we were aiming for this final game,” Tomchesson said. “It was always the focus, no matter what.
Lakenheath is no stranger to the deeper levels of the Division I tournament, having lost to Ramstein 8-6 in the 2017 European championship game. The Lancers were solid in the regular season, as well, splitting doubleheaders with Kaiserslautern and Wiesbaden and sweeping Ramstein in a pair of games May 12. The Lancers struck immediately upon arrival in the tournament, knocking off homestanding Kaiserslautern 6-4 and besting second-seeded Stuttgart 11-7 on Thursday.
Kaiserslautern has been chasing an elusive Division I title for years, most memorably in a rain-shortened 3-0 loss to Ramstein in the 2016 championship game. But the Raiders’ postseason viability was called into question late in the spring; they gave back a lead to rival Ramstein as part of a regular-season ending doubleheader sweep and did the same against the Lancers on Thursday.
The third-seeded Raiders corrected that course to reach the elimination round, fight off Wiesbaden for an 8-7 semifinal win Saturday morning and trade blows with the Lancers in the final. Head coach Justin Bates said the Raiders have “nothing to be ashamed of” in terms of their effort or performance.
“This was a very well-played game by both teams,” Bates said. “Our kids left it all out there on the field. We pitched well, we hit well, we field well. They just did it a little better than we did.”