Indy baseball squad gains composure, earns spot in postseason
by Andrew Stark
Last season, the Independence baseball team finished with an 11-12 record and tied for sixth place in the eight-team Southwestern 4A conference. That was nothing new to the Patriots, who had gone six consecutive seasons without a winning record.
Over the previous three years combined, they’d won just nine conference games, and the program hadn’t finished among the top four spots in the Southwestern 4A since 2006, which also was the last year the Patriots had a winning record and won a playoff game.
So when the Patriots began this season with a 3-5 overall record, including an 0-4 mark in conference play, it seemed as if they were headed for another tough year.
“We knew we had to pick it up,” said junior shortstop and lead-off man Nick Salisbury. “We wanted to be the team to step it up and make the playoffs. We knew Independence had not made the playoffs in a while, and we wanted to be the team to get there.”
Independence currently is 14-10 and 7-7 in conference play. Entering their April 30 game against archrival Butler, the Patriots were tied with the Bulldogs for fourth place in the conference, and a win would ensure them an automatic bid to the Class 4A state playoffs. The Patriots trailed, 4-0, after the first inning and 5-3 in the fourth inning, but they rallied to take a 7-6 win earning a fourth seed in the Class 4A state playoffs.
“Early in the year, we probably wouldn’t have been able to win that game,” Salisbury said. “Early in the season, if we got behind we would put our heads down and think that we could not come back – we were not mentally ready to come back.
“Now we are in the mind-set where we know that we can come back and win these games. We never get too high or too low and realize we can get ourselves out of tough situations.”
What was the turning point for the Patriots?
Salisbury and his teammates point to a March 27 comeback win over Myers Park, in which the Patriots scored four runs in the final two innings to win, 5-4. That victory, in part, led to the Patriots winning seven of eight games, including taking four consecutive conference wins during that stretch.
“It took us a few games to get warmed up,” said Patriots’ center fielder Cody Lekavich. “That Myers Park game helped get us going, especially in conference, and we started playing good ball after that.”
The Patriots were ousted from the first round of the conference tournament, suffering a 9-1 defeat to Butler on May 3, but they have their minds set on the bigger picture.
“We are obviously playing better baseball than we were to start the season, but our mind-set has never changed,” fourth-year Independence coach Matt Dykema said. “I have told the guys from the fall until now, ‘I believe in every one of you. I believe in us as a team and expect us to win games. If we get down early, I expect us to come back and win those games.’”
The team has responded and been balanced on offense and on the mound.
Tyler Fay leads seven Patriots who have recorded double-figure RBI totals. Salisbury leads 10 Patriots who have double-figure hits, and 11 guys have at least 30 at-bats.
“We are getting some really good team wins,” Dykema said. “Every night it has been somebody different. Lane Polk has stepped up and got some big hits in big situations when we have really needed it. He’s carried the load for us in critical situations.
“(Clay) Tiderman is swinging a great bat now, but he went two or three games when he was struggling and didn’t play. Carlos (Matos) was hitting it well, and now it’s Lane and Clay. So it’s a good thing, and I think it’s good competition and gets the most out of everyone.”
Tiderman said having so many players willing, and able, to get the big hit only helps.
“It’s not like we depend on just one or two guys to get the hit or drive in the big run – it is a total team concept,” he said.
P.J Sardinia, Fay, David Fowler, Polk, Matos and Tim Miller have also made large contributions to the Patriots’ turnaround season.
While dangerous at the plate, the Patriots have been great on the mound and are led by sophomore James Hickes, who is 6-1 with a 1.84 ERA and also has a save.
“James has been our stud and our rock out there,” Lekavich said. “To come out as a sophomore and to be one of the best pitchers in the conference, he has been huge for us.”
Tiderman has appeared in 11 games on the mound, but his bat of late has helped the Patriots win some games they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Lekavich (.356 batting average) has driven in 15 runs, scored 18 and leads the team with 15 stolen bases. Meanwhile, his stellar defense in center field has made a huge impact on the Patriots’ team defense.
“A couple of catches that he has made in center, if somebody else had been out there they wouldn’t have been able to get to those balls,” Salisbury said. “He has been coming up big with the bat, too. He has been hitting the ball hard all season. Early in the year, they were right at people, but now he has been finding the holes.”
Salisbury is the Patriots’ catalyst, hitting .417 with 23 runs and 11 RBIs.
“If everyone else is doing bad, Nick is the only one to keep fighting all the way through the game,” Lekavich said. “He really inspires us as a team, and I know personally he inspires me every day out here in practice. He just works so hard and wants to win so bad.”
Now, with the regular season and conference tournament out of the way, the Patriots are looking forward to making a run in the state playoffs. They feel that they have the team and the mind-set to be a tough out against any opponent.
“We have had a good season and have been doing well, but we want to see how far we can advance in the state playoffs,” Tiderman said. “We can look back on our accomplishments after the year, but we can’t get comfortable now.”
Salisbury said he is happy with the way the season has gone, but isn’t ready to be finished yet.
“It was a big accomplishment making it to the playoffs and finishing fourth in this league, but we are not satisfied with just that – we want to keep it going,” Salisbury said.
Lekavich said a lot of the credit for the Patriots’ bounce-back season lies with Dykema, who keeps the team focused and accountable.
“He keeps us fired up and is always pushing us to get better and working hard to improve,” Lekavich said. “If we are not giving our 100 percent effort, he knows when to push us and keep us responsible and accountable with what we are doing.”
Dykema said that the season has been a success, but this is not the time to sit back and reflect. He feels the Patriots have come a long way but isn’t satisfied with the year just yet.
“We never start the season saying we want to finish fourth in the league,” Dykema said. “We always want to win a championship, but after the season gets going, we reassess and see where we are and where we need to be. Right now, we are a playoff team, and that is our focus.
“As a whole, this has been a good year, but we want more. It’s just a good bunch of boys, and they play really hard and play aggressively. It’s starting to pay off from a program standpoint, and I’m just really proud of what they have done so far.”