INDIANAPOLIS – Norwell senior Luke Hunter figures he was eight or nine years old when the expectations began.
“We were the Ossian Bandits travel team,” he said. “People told us, 'You're a really good team. You should be a team that contends for a state championship.' Here we are now. It's incredible.”
That group of Norwell boys, picking up some more along the way until they were 10 seniors strong, fulfilled those lofty expectations Friday night, beating top-ranked Jasper 2-1 to win the Class 3A state title at Victory Field.
Norwell (33-3) won its third title in the last 11 years, with the 2013 team joining the 2003 and 2007 teams as the school's champs. The Knights finished runnerup in 2006.
It's not easy winning titles when people expect you to win, when the target on your back expands with each accolade and win.
This Norwell team, with a new coach in Andy McClain, took the favorite label and embraced it. They were led by Josh VanMeter, a longtime star in baseball and basketball who reached one of his goals when he was drafted by the San Diego Padres on June 7. The other major goal, he said, was bringing a state title back to Norwell.
VanMeter threw a three-hit complete game win on the mound Friday, and pitched masterfully the last three games, but he had plenty of help. The Knights were loaded with a talented senior class helped by the presence of junior Jonah Patten, a University of Arkansas recruit.
Throughout the tournament, the heroes varied. Hunter and Jake Meyer delivered big hits against Heritage. Tailur Szarenski, Austin Dettmer, Austin Dantzer and Spencer Newell powered the offense against NorthWood. Nathan Shelton laid down two bunts to set up Patten driving home VanMeter with both runs Friday. Anchoring the defense was Cale Schumm at catcher, an unsung hero who played one of his best defensive games in the state championship. The team's other senior, Reece Dafforn, played his role behind the scenes.
“We had 10 seniors come together to get this,” Szarenski said. “There's no greater sports feeling I've ever had. Everything fell into place.”
VanMeter knows as well as anyone the pressures of expectations and his handling of the situation set the tone for his teammates.
When he went out to the mound in the seventh needing three outs to clinch the state title, he did so with purpose and confidence.
“I love that position,” he said. “I love being in position to close it out.”
McClain had a tough task when he took over as Norwell's new coach this season. He inherited a talented team, no question, but he had to show he could fill the big shoes of former coach Kelby Weybright, who had coached 11 years and those two prior championship teams. Weybright stepped aside in part to coach his own young sons, but he left some huge expectations for McClain.
McClain led Indianapolis Brebeuf to the Class 3A state title game last season, losing to Western in the championship.
He knew he had another chance with this Norwell team. He became the first coach in Indiana history to lead two schools to a state title game. Now he has a championship on his resume.
“I just had to give as much effort as I asked of them,” McClain said. “It's taxing. You can't demand effort unless you give it yourself. That's the secret recipe – hard work.”
Those around Norwell know this team had talent a year ago, too, but not necessarily the chemistry to make a tournament run.
That changed when quieter leaders like Hunter, Shelton and Schumm stepped up and helped forge an even better all-for-one attitude.
“We just got a lot closer as a team this year and started to bond,” Hunter said. “I think that kept us together in these close games.”
On the team's first trip together, in late March, McClain pulled the bus over to Victory Field as they were passing through Indianapolis. The field was open, so they walked in.
“Coach McClain set us in the seats right here,” Dantzer said, pointing to the area behind third base where Norwell fans celebrated. “He said it's going to be tough, but we're going to get to this field at the end of the year.”
Thirty-three wins later, the Norwell seniors reached their destination.
“I don't know what else to say,” VanMeter said. “We did it. We won the state championship and now we're getting a blue ring.”
Just like they expected.