By SETH STRINGER
LAKELAND – Wednesday began with a celebration for NWF State but ended in heartbreak.
Justice Thompson's walkoff three-run blast to force a winner-takes-all FCSAA title matchup seemed like distant memory once Chipola recorded the final out of a 14-6 win at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Chipola is headed to Grand Junction, Colorado, for the JUCO national tournament. NWF State's season is done.
All year long the two had battled for a Panhandle Conference title, the Raiders' 19-5 record a game ahead of the Indians for league supremacy. So it was only fitting the two go the distance Wednesday, Chipola ultimately finishing the season 5-4 against NWF State and earning the FCSAA's lone bid to Colorado, where the Panhandle Conference is looking for a fourth national title in the last five seasons.
NWF State (44-12) began Wednesday with an improbable comeback 10-7 win, the Raiders trailing 5-0 headed to the bottom of the third.
But they wouldn't go quietly into that good night.
A bases-loaded walk from Franks in the fourth cut the deficit in half. Then, following a Chipola run in the fifth, an RBI single by Fitzgerald and an RBI groundout from Simonich knotted the score at 6.
NWF State reliever Connor Stephens, who didn't allow a single hit over five innings of three-strikeout ball, later walked three straight in the ninth and gave up an Ivan Johnson sacrifice fly as Chipola took a 7-6 lead.
Three outs from elimination, Kaden Polcovich was hit by a pitch and Mike Madej walked. After a Jake Randa sacrifice fly, Will Moriarty was walked to load the bases. A wild pitch brought home the tying run and Fitzgerald grounded out to shortstop to bring up Thompson.
Thompson, who had three homers, six runs, nine RBIs, three stolen bases and four walks as part of a 7-for-22 effort in the state showcase, exited stage left for the 10-7 win.
Cue the celebration, yet it would be short-lived.
Each 4-1 in the tournament at this point, NWF State led the nightcap 3-2 headed to the fifth with Jacob Kush on the mound. But the Indians sent 10 men to the plate during a six-run fifth, which featured five hits and a grand slam from Julio Carrion.
NWF State answered with a Moriarty RBI triple to score Randa and a Fitzgerald RBI single to trim the lead to 8-5, but the Indians answered with a four-run sixth to push the lead to 12-5. NWF State threatened again with Polcovich's RBI single in the sixth, but NWF State's bat couldn't reproduce yet another hit parade.
For the tournament, the Raiders scored 48 runs in six games.