ENID, Okla. — There's been no shortage of late-inning magic at this year's NJCAA Division II World Series as Mesa, Ariz., continued the trend Thursday.
Trailing by one entering the bottom of the seventh, the Thunderbirds posted a 5-run inning to take a firm 7-3 lead against Madison, Wis., in a semifinal elimination game at David Allen Memorial Ballpark.
Mesa held off the Wolfpack in the final two innings to win, 7-4, and advanced to the World Series Championship for the second time in program history.
Thunderbirds' head coach Tony Cirelli, now in his 25th year, credited his team's ability not to fold under pressure.
"We just kept grinding and didn't panic," he said. "The last couple days we haven't been getting the timely two-out hits. We got some big hits today."
Mesa scored the game's first run with a lead-off home run by Connor Denning in the bottom of the first inning, but was held scoreless for the next three. Meanwhile, Madison took a 3-1 lead after the Thunderbirds committed three defensive errors in the second inning.
Both starting pitchers, who normally enter in relief, settled in after the first couple innings to hold the opposing offense in check.
For Mesa, sophomore Nolan Ruff was asked to step up with a trip to Friday's championship game on the line. Normally the Thunderbirds' closer, Ruff made just one start all season, only because the projected starter was ill.
His longest outing prior to Thursday's contest was six innings. Only twice had he thrown three or more.
With an adjusted mindset from a reliever to a starter, Ruff pitched a complete game, allowing just one earned run on 11 hits, two walks and nine strikeouts.
"I got to last this whole game," he said he thought to himself in pregame. "But I got to give it my all through the whole nine. Never once did I think about letting up."
Ruff tossed a total of 119 pitches.
On the other side for Madison, Eliot Turnquist was put in almost the exact situation as Ruff, having made one start during the year. Turnquist lasted five innings in his previous start, his longest outing of the season.
Through six innings Thursday against Mesa, Turnquist gave up just two runs on five hits, one walk with four strikeouts. But in the seventh, his rhythm disappeared as the Thunderbirds offense got to him.
Turnquist allowed a lead-off double, a walk before Madison head coach Mike Davenport took him out. Mesa's momentum continued as Denning tied the game, 3-3, with an RBI single. A bases-clearing triple by Paul Steffensen and a sacrifice fly gave the Thunderbirds a 6-3 lead.
Denning went 4-for-5 with two runs and two RBI and fell a triple shy of hitting for the cycle.
Mesa added one more before the inning finally came to an end with the bases loaded.
The 4-run lead ended up being enough for Ruff and the Thunderbirds. Madison cut the deficit to three with a solo home run by Jarrett Scheelk, but did not score again.
"To get here you have to have unheralded guys stepping up," Cirelli, Mesa's head coach, said. "And that's exactly what we've had. They've been huge on the mound."
In Wednesday's game against Madison, it was Cody Tucker who came through for the Thunderbirds, holding the Wolfpack to three runs in an 8-inning run rule.
With the way Mesa is playing, having avoided elimination in three consecutive games, Cirelli is confident the Thunderbirds can claim the title Friday, regardless of the opponent.
"You can have great players, or you can play great," Cirelli said. "These guys right now are playing great. I'm just trying to stay out of their way and let them play."
Mesa won the World Series in 2014, defeating Hinds, Miss., 9-7.
After making back-to-back World Series appearances, Madison again leaves Enid empty handed.
Wolfpack head coach Mike Davenport knows this year was a missed opportunity given the experience of the team.
"This was a great mix of good players with a good maturity level," he said. "I'm actually surprised that we didn't handle the pressure better than we did. We made some costly mistakes and good teams make plays on them."