COZAD – With their home fields in less than ideal conditions for play, the Elwood-Eustis Bulls and the Overton Bandits had to find common ground for their doubleheader on Saturday. Both teams traveled to Muny Park in Cozad.
One could list the stats and play-by-play of the biggest innings of the game, but in all of that a subtler story would be lost.
It would suffice to acknowledge that the Bandits certainly won both games in the meeting, taking a 1-5 win in the first of the doubleheader with the Bulls and a definitive 5-13 win at the end of the second. Talking to the Elwood-Eustis coaching staff would give anyone the sense that the Bulls didn’t lose anything.
Elwood-Eustis head coach Keith Henggeler had been telling Bulls fans to be patient in recent weeks and ensures them his team will start seeing some tighter scores and closer games. His confidence in the Bulls as a young and growing team remains strong.
In a pre-season scrimmage with the largest Legion program in the area, Lexington Pinnacle Bank, the Bulls had fallen behind, 0-9 in the first inning and a half to the Class A Legion team. The Pinnacle Bank Seniors narrowly claimed a win over the experienced Overton Bandits, 8-7, in both teams’ season opener. This weekend, the Bandits did take the wins, but by a narrower margin than the Bulls could have hoped for in the beginning of their season.
“Game one was a close ball game,” Henggeler said after the games on Saturday. “We wanted it to be a closer game, so I chose my two best pitchers and they executed. With our growing team, their execution is why you saw a 1-5 game instead of a 2-13 game like last week.”
The Bulls had exhausted one of their two primary pitchers in the first game and started the second with a pitcher that had seen innings in the first game of the doubleheader. Between the games, Coach Henggeler had expressed his worry of running short on pitching, but insisted they would find a way to get through the game.
Trevor Jorges started on the mound in the second game and, having thrown 31 pitches in the first game and an additional 25 in the second, had to come off the mound. Quintin Shaner took the mound and threw 18 pitches before he needed to give his arm a rest. With his options for pitchers dwindling fast, Henggeler looked over his dugout and decided to take a different approach; one that proved that a hero can come from anywhere.
“We had an eighth grader come into the ball game, one that can throw strikes,” Henggeler said as he smiled, stood up straight and clapped the young Elijah Niemeier on the shoulder. “There were some questions about whether Elijah would be ready, just based on his age, but he’s been patient, worked as hard as anybody else and listened to everything we’ve been teaching. Today was his day.”
Henggeler told Niemeier to throw strikes, and so he did.
His first time on a Legion mound, Elijah Niemeier didn’t have the fiery fastball or the wicked curveball that some of the older players do; but he could throw strikes.
Pitch after pitch he was in or near the strike zone, occasionally letting them pass a little high, but he was getting the ball where it needed to be to make the Bandits swing. If the batter connected, the Bulls fielded outs to support the youngest player on the team.
“I thought I was going to let the team down at first,” Niemeier said after the game. “I started to feel more confident when they got the first hit.”
In the team huddle after the game, the Bulls had agreed to name Niemeier their MVP of the game.
“It felt good,” he said about the praise from the team. “I don’t feel like I deserve it because they did most of the work getting the outs, catching and throwing the ball.”
The Elwood-Eustis players and coaches disagreed with Niemeier and awarded him the game ball.
In closing the interview, Niemeier stated that he wanted to thank the coaches for teaching him and giving him a chance at pitching. He also thanks his mom and dad, Jenny and Nic, for letting him play on the team.