DES MOINES — Five times after scoring a first inning run against the second ranked team in the state, Albia appeared to get the one extra run they would need to pull off an upset in their return to the Class 2A State Baseball Tournament after an 11-year absence.
But all five times, second-ranked North Polk stonewalled the Blue Demons and kept the long, tense 2A state quarterfinal finale going until it hit historic numbers late Monday night at Principal Park. In fact, it would not be until the game hit a record-tying 13th inning that the Comets would finally snap the 1-1 tie they forged in the fourth with Albia as Clay Cory scored on a Grant Schiltz sacrifice fly after doubling to right to lead off an inning only Lansing, Kee and Bancroft, St. John’s in 1978 had ever seen before at the Iowa High School State Baseball Tournament.
That run would hold up as just enough as the Comets held off Albia’s upset bid that started in the opening inning and continued right through the 13th. Finally, after throwing out Gabe Gravert at home following his one-out triple for the second out of the inning and forcing out Griffin Osing at second, North Polk survived the longest state tournament game time-wise as the Comets took a 2-1, three-hour and 35-minute marathon that finally ended 20 minutes before midnight.
“It was a terrific, terrific ballgame,” Albia head coach Boyd Brittan said after leading his team into a historic night that doubled as his team’s first-ever game played at Principal Park. “I’m not sure North Polk isn’t the best team in the entire state of Iowa. We gave them everything we had out there.”
“It was pretty cool to get Albia back here to a state tournament,” Albia junior Victor Sanders said after taking the tough loss after coming in to throw the final four innings of relief after senior Ethan Gray pitched a state-required maximum nine full innings in his state tournament start. “The last time Albia played here, I think I was six years old. It’s pretty cool to say you’re part of the second team ever to bring the program up here and play on this stage.”
“I guess it’s also pretty cool to be a part of history. I just wish we could have been a part of a 3-2 history-making win instead of a 2-1 history-making loss.”
Albia had plenty of chances, however, to simply be a part of a 2-1 upset win that would have sent the Blue Demons into the state semifinals in a memorable fashion. In fact, if not for a dropped two-out fly ball by left fielder Hugh Sinclair, Gray may have pitched Albia to a 1-0 shutout win after scoring in the first inning on a Brett Leshen double that saw the relay throw hit Leshen at second to allow the Albia ace hurler to score in the opening frame.
Tied at 1-1 in the sixth, the Blue Demons first two chances to take the lead went by the boards on back-to-back plays as Bryce Leshen’s single with two runners on seemed like it would bring home Osing from second before a strong throw Reed Smith from left easily gunned down the Albia third baseman for the second out. After moving up to third on the play, Sanders took his turn to score the go-ahead run moments later on a wild pitch, but amazingly was also thrown out as the ball caromed right back to North Polk catcher Grant Lang who flipped back to Jake Hadaway for the final out.
Hadaway would strike out 11 batters on the night before giving way to Lang, who added seven more strikeouts of his own over the next seven innings. However, Albia had more chances to make Lang the losing pitcher.
After Sanders got out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the top of the 10th, Brett Leshen and Griffin Osing reached with two outs to give Albia a chance again to pick up a walk-off win. Gravert seemed to deliver that walk-off hit with a smash to right. Leshen headed home with the winning run, but another strong throw by Russell Greene gave Grant Schiltz plenty of time to catch and tag the Albia junior for the final out of the frame.
“Coach (Brittan) told me I was going if I saw the ball get into the outfield,” Leshen said of the play. “I saw Gabe get the ball into the outfield and I turned it on for home. It was a great throw. You’ve give them all the credit in the world.”
Two innings later, Leshen was poised to deliver the winning hit as Gray singled with two outs in the 12th and stole second base. A ground ball to second was bobbled and kicked away from one middle infielder, giving Gray an opening to try and score, but the perfect roll to the other Comet middle infielder allowed the shortstop, and former starting pitcher, Hadaway, to gun down Gray who tried but could not avoid being the fourth Blue Demon tagged out.
“I thought that ball had kicked away from the second baseman more than it did,” Leshen said. “That was the one that really surprised me.”
“Of all those plays, that’s probably the one I’d second guess myself on,” Brittan added. “I probably shouldn’t have sent the runner knowing that the ball didn’t get as far away as I was thinking it would.”
One inning later, North Polk (30-4) finally snapped the tie on Cory’s run, but Albia had one last chance to keep their upset hopes alive. Gravert, one of the three seniors to play in their only state tournament game Monday night, tripled into the left field corner to give the Blue Demons a runner in scoring position with one out.
Needing just to put the ball in play to tie it, Osing did just that. However, a grounder to Hadaway allowed the North Polk senior to make one more big throw home as Gravert was tagged out at home. The senior stayed down for a brief moment longer with frustration visible on his face as, moments later, a final groundball to second sent the second-ranked Comets to a matchup with Carroll Kuemper Thursday night in the 2A state semifinals while ending Albia’s season at 24-17.
“We went from a team that struggled to a 10-26 record last year to a team that more than doubled that total in wins this year,” Sanders said. “We’ve got a lot of great players coming back. This is only going to make us a better team going forward.”