By Andrew Mild and Jim Masters
The 2001 Seattle Mariners, 2007 New England Patriots and the 2016 Golden State Warriors. Now what does every team on that list have in common? All dominated their regular season and set new records for most wins in a season in their respective leagues. The only issue with these teams, is that they never capped off their season with a championship.
The 2022 Lake County Corn Dogs completed the best regular season of all-time in Northern League (formally Midwest Collegiate League) history with their 35 wins (against 11 losses). After the 3-1 Northern League playoff win over the Joliet Generals on Tuesday, the Corn Dogs were playing for the league championship on Wednesday. The Corn Dogs had home field advantage, given their regular season first-place finish.
The NWI Oilmen traveled to Legacy Fields in Crown Point for the playoff double-header. Both games were scheduled for seven innings, and if either team won both games they would clinch the title. If there was a split, both teams would head to Oil City Stadium for a winner-take-all game three — that didn’t happen. The Corn Dogs won game one 8-7 in extra innings and took the second contest 14-1.
Region rivalry starts with a bang
The Oilmen’s Cain Headrick came up against pitching ace Ryan Troxel in the first inning and hit a solo home run over the left field wall to make it 1-0. The solo shot gave the Oilmen the momentum and carried it into the second inning.
Troxel, who had only walked 12 hitters all season long, struggled to find the zone. Josh Cuniff hit a two-RBI double into left field, and Shai Robinson would complete the scoring with a sacrifice fly. The Oilmen were commanding the game through two innings. Except, if you’ve seen any Corn Dogs-Oilmen matchups, you can always expect a dramatic comeback.
In the fourth inning, the Corn Dogs worked some walks, and a wild pitch put two runners in scoring position. Hayden Matulitch and Danny Puplava would put some baseballs in play to drive in the two runners and cut the Oilmen lead in half, 4-2.
Small ball that got the Corn Dogs cooking, except it wasn’t enough. “Mr. Corn Dog,” Tyler Schultz, provided a much-needed home run to make it a one-run game going into the sixth inning.
The Oilmen grabbed an insurance run in the top of the sixth frame. In the bottom of the sixth, Puplava drove in Scott Hansen to make it a one-run game again. Donavan Noble then came up with the bases loaded and two away, with a chance to give his team the lead. Noble hit a hard ground ball and the shortstop Jack Zebig couldn’t glove it, as the ball trickled into left-center and two runs scored to give the Corn Dogs their first lead of the game, 6-5.
After a lead-off walk in the top of the seventh, Jack Zebig hit a clutch RBI-triple that tied the game again. Luckily, pitcher Jake Thometz was able to get a strikeout and a bunt hit back to him to keep it that way.
The Corn Dogs didn’t score in the bottom of the seventh, and game one needed an eighth to sort out the contest. David Marshall singled and the Oilmen took the lead at 7-6 lead in the top of the eighth, and a play at the plate ended the inning.
Two runs and the Corn Dogs would nail the win, as Puplava worked a walk to start the eighth, Stevonovic would single into right to send the pinch-runner Colin Small from first to third. Cal Curiel would also come in as a pinch runner for Stevonovic.
Oilmen pitcher Matt Ostrowski tried to pick-off Curiel, but instead sent it way up the first base line. Small scored easily to tie the game at seven, Curiel sprinted his way into third, and after a really close play the Oilmen manager Adam Enright argued the call.
Enright then got creative with no outs and the winning run on third. Gavin Terry and Noble would were handed intentional passes to load up the bases. Enright then brought in an extra infielder and one outfielder. With three men on the left and two on the right of the diamond, the Oilmen had deployed their last line of defense.
Schultz then dug into the box and waved his magic wand, as he somehow squeezed a groundball between David Marshall and the third base bag, and the Corn Dogs walked-off game one, 8-7.
Corn Dogs dominate game 2
The Corn Dogs scored three runs in the first inning of the second game off of singles from Scott Hansen, Puplava and Matulitch.
The Oilmen got an earned run from another single from David Marshall to send in Josh Cuniff, making the score was 3-1. That’s all the Oilmen would get in game two.
Puplava wanted that run right back, as he got a high fastball he tomahawked over the left field wall to give the Dogs their three-run lead right back.
The fourth inning is where game two fell off the rails. The Corn Dogs scored eight runs in the inning off of eight walks and just three hits. The Corn Dogs were crushing after that with their 12-1 cushion.
Corn Dogs tacked on two more runs and headed into the seventh ready to celebrate. With two outs, Noble fielded a grounder at second and lobbed it to Donovan Nanfeldt. Noble then pointed to the sky and his teammates stormed the field to celebrate the championship.
The Lake County Corn Dogs left no questions on the table. This was the best team, by virtue of record, in the league’s history.
Schultz and Puplava received Macron Player of the Game honors for game one and two, respectively.
A special season for Corn Dogs manager Justin Huisman
Manager Justin Huisman had won the Northern League Championship before, but as the manager of the Oilmen. The Crown Point resident said the feeling was especially gratifying given that it happened leading a team before hometown fans.
“It’s really special to do this in Crown Point where I live in front of fans and family and friends who came to a lot of games,” a jubilant Huisman said after the game. “It feels more family oriented here, so I see myself very invested in this team, in this product, and I know we can do even more next year.”
Huisman admired the team for their belief no game was ever out of their reach.
“I think it was just a fun confidence that we had, like the guys knew they were good, knew they could win every day, but they never pressed,” he said. “Early in the season we would get down a lot early in games and they would just come back because they believed in themselves.”
However, early in game one, he did his team pressing a bit.
“A couple guys were pressing early in the game,” Huisman said. “I could tell that they were swinging at pitches they normally don’t swing at, but once we got together and we said, ‘hey let’s get back to Corn Dogs baseball,’ they did just that.”
Photo by Josh Brunette