In a sport driven by numbers, one season-ending total stuck out for the Lapel baseball team. Evident whenever the Bulldogs lined up for the national anthem or called for a position change in the field, the final figure supplied Lapel’s bench with little company and abundant seating availability.

Eleven.

After 25 grueling regular season games, 11 players were all that remained on the team’s once 17-man roster, forcing a momentary discontinuance of the junior varsity program due to dwindling numbers.

A detrimental blow for most, but for Lapel coach Eric Hagan and the Bulldogs, it amounted to nothing short of rock-solid team chemistry and the program’s first Class 1A regional title in school history.

“Those 11 kids believed in one another and the program,” said Hagan, who was named The Herald Bulletin Coach of the Year. “They genuinely liked one another and backed one another. I can’t coach that. I can talk to them, be there for them and implore my philosophy…but unless they believe in the team, the coaches and themselves, things just don’t happen.”

Through the early portion of the season, the results were primarily static for the senior-less Bulldogs.

With four freshman starters and an inexperienced outfield after graduation left three huge voids to fill, Lapel stumbled to a perplexing 4-6 mark and endured a character building 2-6 record against larger programs before hitting bottom against Class 2A Frankton.

Losing the first game of a doubleheader as Aaron Tuttle held the Bulldogs’ hitless for a 12-0 win, Hagan knew it was time for a change.

And it started from within.

“The turnaround began with (Dave) Sowar,” Hagan recalled as he proudly watched his juniors become team leaders, putting the program ahead of personal accomplishments. “Sowar laid it on the line down the right field line between games. I didn’t have to say a word. He pretty much said enough is enough, and they all knew it after that game.”

Mustering a split with Frankton by winning the second game 5-1, Lapel went 8-7 the rest of the way as the team fed off their coach’s passion and the player’s trust in one another bolstered along with their confidence.

Finishing second in the White River Athletic Conference, while dropping a one-run ball game to first-place Knightstown, Lapel posted a regular season mark of 5-2 versus Class 1A opponents before embarking on their state tournament run.

“This group really came together,” Lapel assistant coach Randy Valentine remarked. “They are the closet group I’ve ever been part of as a coach. They act like family and push each other. They wanted to get better. They listened and worked really hard.”

Once the postseason started, the Bulldogs were precisely at the level they expected to be.

Freshman Devon Silvey and Andrew Pashcal along with juniors Ivo Kluesner and Derek Faust found their range in the outfield while varsity standouts David Addington and Jake Vicars were primed for big games.

“We had to replace the entire outfield. We put kids out there that never played the outfield before, and they did a great job,” Hagan said. “Our outfield was a trial by jury at first, but they carried us a couple of times in the postseason. It wasn’t anything we did. They were the ones who got comfortable in the outfield. I’m really proud of them.”

The coach’s pride swelled as Lapel swept through the sectional tournament, winning three straight, including back-to-back complete-game shutouts from Addington and Brad Skaggs.

The Bulldogs outscored their opponents 23-3 in the tournament and the lineup belted a dominating .359 batting average for the program’s second sectional title in three years.

However, the best was yet to come.

In a regional rematch against top-ranked Cowan, who knocked Lapel out of the tournament two seasons prior, the Bulldogs came out swinging.

Vicars blasted his first career grand slam and his third homerun in four games, while Addington hit four doubles in the gema and recorded his eighth pitching victory as Lapel beat Cowan 16-6 to capture the program’s first regional title and semistate berth.

“It was an amazing season,” said Vicars, who led the team in five offensive categories. “I’m proud of what this team accomplished.”

Before falling to sixth-ranked Frontier in the Kokomo Semistate, Lapel, who won’t lose a single starter next season, notched wins in five of their last six and held a 39-9 scoring advantage through four games.

A far cry from the outset and nothing to do with coaching, according to Hagan, who insists the Bulldogs’ 16-13 finish was a direct result of the player’s efforts and willingness to embrace a team-first philosophy.

“I will never take credit for wins and loses,” the coach said after logging his second winning season in four years to improve his career record to 53-56. “Like the old saying goes, coaches get too much credit for wins and loses. I don’t get to step between the white lines. It’s all the kids. They deserve the credit. They have made this town, this school and this program very proud. I was glad I was able to go along for the ride. I’ll remember this forever. I’ve been blessed.”

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