By JAMES JOHNSON
ASHTABULA - James Ashley's first save of the season shut the door on four years of frustration for the Jefferson Falcons.
Ashley pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning in relief of starter Adam Miller to close out the Falcons' 4-3 win over Lakeside at Smith Field on Thursday. The win handed Jefferson at least a share of its first Northeastern Conference championship since 2002, ending the Dragons' run of three straight NEC crowns, mostly at the expense of the Falcons. A win over Conneaut on Monday will give the Falcons (18-3, 10-1 NEC) the title outright.
"We were able to do it mainly because we were finally able to overcome these guys," Jefferson coach Scott Barber said in reference to the Dragons. "It's been a long time coming."
"This feels so good," Ashley said after closing out the win with his save. "I just wanted to come in and throw strikes and close it out. Drew (Puck-
rin) made a great play, Andy (Parma) made a great play. We feel real good heading into the sectional. We feel really strong."
The last time Jefferson won the NEC, all of the current Falcon starters were in junior high school.
"Yeah, I think I was in the eighth grade," Ashley said. "I'm really happy we've got the NEC pretty much wrapped up now. It means a lot to the team."
Lakeside (12-7, 5-5 NEC) did its very best to deny the Falcons that share of the NEC at least for one more day. The Dragons finally got to Miller, scoring three times in the bottom of the sixth to cut Jefferson's lead to 4-3. Miller had taken a three-hit shutout into the inning.
After Jaimie Frasure grounded out to open the sixth, Stavros Mermis reached second on a rare fielding error from Ryan Morford in center. Miller then walked both Josh Mullholland and Ryan Sposito to load the bases for Matt Diamond, who promptly lifted an RBI sacrifice fly to right to score Mermis.
After Andy DeDomenic walked to re-load the bases, Lakeside's No. 9 hitter Derrick Holley ripped a two-run double off the fence in right to pull the Dragons within one. The Dragons had a chance to do even more damage with Ryan Fleming and Nick Presciano due up next, but Miller struck out Fleming looking to end the threat.
"Adam ran out of gas there in the end," Barber said. "His pitch count was 96 or 98 pitches after six innings. I really don't like him throwing that many pitches. He gutted it out."
Miller went six innings, allowing just four hits. None of the runs he allowed were earned. In 41 innings this season, Miller has yet to surrender an earned run.
But it was Miller's stick that proved to be more valuable Thursday. His leadoff solo home run to left in the fourth inning broke a scoreless tie. Lakeside starter Fleming (3-3) had not allowed a hit until the homer.
Jefferson made it 2-0 when Parma scored after Sposito misplayed Zak Blair's potential inning-ending grounder at second.
Miller also had a hand in giving Jefferson its 4-0 lead in the fifth when he reached on a two-out double to left. After Parma reached on an error, Drew Puckrin drove them both home with a single.
"If we make the routine plays, we win this game 3-1," Lakeside coach Tony Nappi said. "Those errors hurt us too much. We only made one mistake and that's when that kid hit a home run.
"They're a good team. They're a very good team. You can't make errors like that against a team like that. You just can't do that."
Thursday's win also gave the Falcons their second close win of the week. Despite scoring at least 10 runs in 11 of its 21 games this season, Barber has been pleased with his team's ability to win the nailbiters, too.
"These kind of games are good character builders," Barber said. "It's good that we're learning how to win these kinds of games heading into the tournament. All of them are going to be like this one."