Cody Tucker, Lansing State Journal
"Man, we had this game."
"We've already lost to this team once though. We blew a late lead in that one, too."
"Maybe they just have our number?"
"Well, it was fun while it lasted."
"At least we made it this far."
Absolutely none of those thoughts crept into Drew Huard's mind with two outs in the top of the ninth. And when you have Carson Eby at the plate, it's easy to see why the first-year skipper would be so confident.
The sophomore slugger from Bay City turned on a fastball, launching a go-ahead solo home run over the left-center field wall of David Allen Memorial Ballpark. The 360-plus foot drive staved off elimination and propelled Lansing Community College to a 7-6 win over No. 4 seed Mercer County (New Jersey) on Wednesday in Enid, Oklahoma.
It also landed the 8th-seeded Stars a rematch with Mercer County in the semifinals of the NJCAA DII World Series on Thursday afternoon.
"I knew it was gone right off the bat," Huard said of Eby's third home run and team-leading 10th RBI of the World Series. "It was a pretty cool moment. It's crazy the amount of Division I schools that are sleeping on him. (Michigan State) coach (Jake) Boss will be ringing in my ear soon. He is a D-I hitter."
Eby has been the Stars' offensive leader all season, racking up eye-popping numbers from the right side of the plate. The sophomore is hitting .436 with 10 home runs and 77 RBIs while only striking out 12 times in 188 regular season at-bats.
Eby also drove in a run for the Stars in a six-run third inning.
"He is a calm and collected type of kid, who gravitates to competitive situations and always comes through," Huard said. "He's very confident. He brings a grittiness to our team."
Eby wasn't the only one bringing the "grit" on Wednesday, either.
Sophomore pitcher Andrew Brighton worked into the eighth inning, allowing three earned runs on 11 hits, while picking up the no-decision. LCC's lefty worked fast and kept Viking hitters off balance on a windy, 90-degree day in northern Oklahoma. He made extra work for himself, walking four and hitting six batters.
"I call him our 'bulldog,' Huard said. "He's not gifted with a 90-mph fastball, but he's a pitcher. It's unfortunate that he couldn't get out of the eighth. It would've been nice to get him a win."
Grand Ledge's Blake Dahlstrom did pick up the victory on the mound for the Stars, giving up a hit and a walk in two innings of work.
Dahlstrom's former high school teammate Alex Huard got the Stars (39-15) on the board in the third inning with a two-run double. Haslett's Hunter Ruhstorfer and Eby followed with RBI singles, and Garrett Hammer broke the game open with a two-run single that fell between three Vikings in left field.
Two days prior, the Vikings erased a late two-run deficit to hand LCC its first loss of the World Series. The Stars committed three errors that day. Wednesday, Mercer repaid the favor with four.
Huard said Mercer (45-13) has five or six potential major league draft picks on its roster. The Vikings also feature one of the top offenses in the country, finishing in the top 10 in seven categories.
That includes ninth overall in runs with 491. They tacked on five more over the next six innings, including three to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth.
"It was a big bounce-back win for us," Huard said of avenging a 9-7 loss to the Vikings Monday. "This bunch has been resilient all year. We battle. One of the things I love about this team is that they give me 110 percent all the time. Can't ask for much more than that.
"I am proud of our kids."
So is LCC President Brent Knight, who is treating the team to a steak dinner tonight. Huard said he wants his team to enjoy the win, but even he himself has had trouble in that department.
"Some of my friends have been telling me to take it all in," he laughed. "They said to take in the moment. (The moment) really hasn't set in to me yet. I am a competitive person, so I am looking forward to the next game. Once we get done – hopefully being national champions – I'll take a few minutes to let it all sink in."
The Stars are the lowest remaining seed in Oklahoma and will face off against Mercer for the third time in four days Thursday in Enid. Game times have not been set. Huard has not named his starting pitcher yet, either.
It's simple. Win Thursday, and the Stars are in the national finals.
"Whoever it is, he will be competitive," the LCC manager said. "We are playing to win this thing."