Air Academy nails down PPAC baseball crown

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Photo - Air Academy's first baseman Kyle Chasse stretches into near splits to get Lewis-Palmer's Billy Cook in the first inning. The Air Academy baseball team became league champions with a win over Lewis-Palmer 7-3 at Air Academy High School on Thursday, May 4, 2017. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette
Air Academy's first baseman Kyle Chasse stretches into near splits to get Lewis-Palmer's Billy Cook in the first inning. The Air Academy baseball team became league champions with a win over Lewis-Palmer 7-3 at Air Academy High School on Thursday, May 4, 2017. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette

Four games into conference play, defending Pikes Peak Athletic Conference champion Air Academy found itself with a .500 record.

In a league filled with parity this season, the Kadets pushed on.

On Thursday, they defeated Lewis-Palmer 7-3 at Air Academy. That win, coupled with Cheyenne Mountain’s loss, propelled the Kadets to their second consecutive league crown.

“It’s a big thing for us, especially our seniors,” Kadets coach Doug Goldberg said. “We have 14 seniors on this team. They’ve been playing together since they were eight or nine years old, so it’s a big deal for them.”

Starting pitcher James Verlinde worked into the sixth inning and the Pikes Peak region 4A No. 1 Kadets (14-4, 10-3 5A/4A PPAC) took advantage of four Lewis-Palmer errors to score at opportune times.

Sam Cregan doubled twice, scored a run on a wild pitch and drove in a run during a three-run first that put the Kadets in front, a lead they never relinquished.

“For us, it’s just putting the ball in play,” Cregan said. “Any time you put the ball in play, they’re going to make mistakes, even at the major league level. You get up there with guys on base, you’ve got to put the ball in play.”

Verlinde gave up two runs on five hits and four walks in 5 2/3 innings. He struck out five.

He set the Rangers (11-7, 8-5) down in order in the first and fifth innings.

Between innings he went to the bullpen and worked on the release point for his curve.

“I had a really good fastball today, kept it low in the zone, really located with it,” Verlinde said. “My curve ball was struggling early in the game, but I got it back dialed in.”

He ran out of gas in the sixth, exiting with runners on first and third and two outs. Grant Shandy stepped in and got a pop up from the next batter.

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Air Academy's Grant Shandy and A.J. Murphy (center, right to left) and other members of the Air Academy celebrate after hearing that they were league champions. They became league champions by defeating Lewis-Palmer 7-3 at Air Academy High School on Thursday, May 4, 2017. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette 

Shandy worked into and out of trouble in the seventh, surrendering a run on three hits. But with runners at the corners and two outs he induced a pop fly and a groundout to end the game.

Despite the slow start to the season, the Kadets’ belief at a repeat title never wavered.

“When we saw the league was growing and getting a lot better this year, we just had to step it up,” Verlinde said. “We turned it around really fast. This league title, we were fighting for it the entire year. To finally have it again, it’s perfect for us.”

Andrew Bentley singled, doubled and scored twice for the Rangers, who missed out on an opportunity to remain in the league title hunt. Had the Rangers won they would have been in the thick of the race.

“We just came out flat,” Rangers coach Brett Lester said. “Brady (Choban) threw a pretty good game. We just didn’t back him up.”