By SAM GRUBENHOFF
NICEVILLE — When Mikey Madej stepped into the box in the bottom of the ninth Friday night, he had no plans to be the hero.
The game was tied, but the Raider sophomore just wanted to get the bunt down. He just wanted to move Kaden Polcovich from first to second. He just wanted 15 minutes of bunting practice before the game against Tallahassee to pay off.
So Madej stepped up to the plate and dropped his bat down low. Tyler Lehrmann, a Tallahassee reliever, fired a pitch right down the middle, one perfect for bunting.
The ball spun out toward third. Polcovich sprinted for second, Madej for first.
Tallahassee's third baseman fielded the ball but rushed his throw. It skipped past first behind Madej's heels and raced toward the fence in foul territory. The home crowd went wild.
So did Madej.
"I saw it bounce around and I turned, looked at second and saw K.P.," he said. "I was saying 'Send him! Send him! Send him!' Once I saw him round it, I knew it was over."
It was. The Raiders' dugout emptied to meet Polcovich at home plate, most of the players jumping up and down, some throwing water, some splitting off to embrace Madej at third, each ready to celebrate an 8-7 walk-off victory and a share of the Panhandle Conference crown.
"It was awesome," said Madej, who finished 1-for-5 with an RBI. "It was just kidna perfect."
The rest of the game was not, though it did show the Raiders' fighting spirit.
Northwest Florida State (37-8 overall, 18-3 Panhandle Conference) took a 3-1 lead after scoring a single run in each of the second, third and fourth innings. That lead went by the wayside in the sixth when Tallahassee's Logan Lacey launched a three-run bomb over the left-field fence on the first pitch he saw.
The Raiders responded with three runs of their own in the bottom half of the frame on a pair of doubles by Niceville alumnus Noah Bailey and Justice Thompson only to watch Tallahassee (28-18, 14-7) retake the lead, 7-6, again in the top of the eighth; freshman Trent Jeffcoat stole third, then coasted into home when catcher Brandon Riera's throw was wide to the bag.
NWF State sophomore Kyle Fitzgerald evened things up at 7-7 in the bottom half of the frame, scoring on a wild pitch after led off the frame with an infield single.
Fitzgerald finished his night 3-for-4 with three runs scored. Thompson also went 3-for-4, adding three RBIs.
"At this point and time of the year, they're all like that," Raiders coach Doug Martin said. "They're all tough to win any of 'em. These guys over there still have a lot to play for. They're still in contention to get a state tournament berth, so we knew they'd be hard to compete against tonight, and I thought they were.
"We made a lot of mistakes. They made a lot of mistakes. I guess they just made the last one, so that was kinda the difference in the game."
Pitching, as it always does, also proved a difference-maker
On the mound, left-hander Jacob Kelchner, who owns a 1.77 ERA this season, was solid Friday, though not infallible. He threw 5 2/3 innings, allowing six hits and three earned runs with two walks and eight strikeouts.
Meanwhile, freshman closer Jackson Boyd earned the victory, his second of the year, throwing the final 1 2/3 innings, striking out three in the top of a scoreless ninth inning.
The Raiders will take on the Commodores again at 1 p.m. Saturday, this time in Tallahassee and this time with a chance to clinch their first conference title since 2011.