Courier Staff Writer
DES MOINES — They didn’t even have a state tournament history eight days ago.
Yet as they entered Principal Park on Saturday afternoon, it seemed the history that would be written about the first Van Buren state baseball qualifying team was one of a team that perhaps was fated to win a championship in its initial appearance on the grand stage of state baseball tournament.
But after a week of good fortune had led them to the doorstep of a title in the program’s first state baseball appearance, the fortunes turned in an instant in the face of a program with plenty of history and plenty of success on this stage. Top-ranked Mason City Newman turned the tables on the young Warriors, turning a pair of early errors into a pair of four unearned runs that held up as the difference as the Knights claimed the program’s fourth state championship Saturday afternoon with a 6-2 win over first-time state finalist Van Buren.
“They did exactly what we’ve been doing the last couple of games. They took advantage of our mistakes,” sophomore Garrett Sanders said. “They did exactly what we’ve been doing. They took advantage of opportunities and it worked out for them.”
The key inning proved to be the third, which saw Robby Laughlin’s one-out throwing error open the door to a four-run inning that snapped a 1-1 tie. Three of those runs were unearned as Parker Dondlinger, who should have been erased on Laughlin’s throw to second that sailed over Austin Bartholomew’s head, scored ahead of Joey Verstegen on a go-ahead two-run single by Kane Louscher.
Pete Lapointe then took advantage of the extra out provided by the error, delivering a two-out, two-run single to right to bring in Louscher and Casey Hall. Lapointe finished the day driving in four of Newman’s six runs, including bringing Joe Burgmeier with an unearned second-inning tally after Warrior starting pitcher Robert Barker’s errant pickoff throw allowed Burgmeier to go from first to third base with one out ahead of Lapointe’s sacrifice fly.
“I think that throw I made into centerfield is where the wheels really came off the wagon a little,” Laughlin said. “We had the tables turned on us in this one. The ball just didn’t fall our way in this one, but I don’t know a whole lot else we could have done to win this.”
In the end, those were the kind of mistakes Van Buren head coach Chad Scott knew his team could not afford to make in a state championship game. Especially because, with an opponent like Mason City Newman, extra opportunities like the ones provided to the Warriors by Don Bosco and Van Meter in the first two rounds of the state tournament would not be coming on Saturday.
“They (Mason City Newman) had four senior starters and quite a few juniors. They’re a veteran club that’s well coached and we knew that coming in,” Scott said. “They’re not going to make mistakes and, uncharacteristically, we made a few and it got us.”
For their part, Van Buren did a pretty good job creating opportunities off 7-0 sophomore Newman pitcher Kaden Wadle. The Warriors outhit the Knights 11-9 in the 1A title tilt and got lead-off singles in four of the seven innings.
The first of those lead-off hits turned into a game-tying run for the Warriors. After allowing an unearned run to score in the second, Barker came around to score as junior Tanner Smith delivered a clutch two-out RBI single to right.
“In the eight-spot (in the lineup), I’m not thinking about putting on over the fence. I’m thinking about coming up with a base hit,” Smith said. “I knew we had a runner in scoring position and he gave me an outside pitch. I just tried to take it the other way. It felt good to contribute to the game at that moment.”
Despite not having started since June 21 and not having pitched at all in weeks, Barker toed the rubber well for three innings on Saturday in the state championship. The freshman allowed five hits, but just one earned run while striking out four batters on the way to suffering his first loss of the season.
“To me, it was just another game and they (Mason City Newman) was just another team,” Barker said. “I haven’t pitched since the IMS game and I had a pretty bad night there, so I’ve been working a lot on my pitching since then. I’ve worked on my command a lot since then.”
“Robert has a good arm. He’s one of our better pitchers when he’s on,” Scott said of his freshman hurler. “That’s one of the things he’s been working on the past few weeks has been giving himself an opportunity to come up here and throw. He’s got tremendous potential and, if he works hard, the sky’s the limit for that kid.”
The four-run deficit seemed larger considering the kind of clutch defense and clutch pitching that Newman threw at Van Buren on Saturday. The Warriors stranded eight runners on the day as Wadle walked just one batter and picked off a runner to end an inning when he caught Saunders stretching off first to end the fifth.
“We had more hits than them, but we knew coming in that Newman wasn’t going to give us the same opportunities Don Bosco or Van Meter did,” Saunders said. “It just simply came down to execution. We didn’t execute as well as Mason City Newman did. They capitalized on opportunities. We didn’t.”
The Warriors had one chance to potentially tie the game as hits by Barker, Noah Whitten and Tyson Sprouse loaded the bases in the sixth. Suddenly, Tanner Smith stood in as the game-tying run with only one out and chance to help Van Buren continue a rally that might ultimately allow them to complete this magical ride to a first-ever state title.
Instead, a chopper back up the middle off Smith’s bat found its way perfectly to Newman second baseman Hall, who just happened to be perfectly headed right to second base. Hall gloved the ball, hit the bag for the force and threw to first to easily get Smith for a rally-killing double play before taking over on the mound in the seventh to close out the state championship.
“If that ball rolls an inch this way or an inch that way, it might have been a different play and the difference in the game,” Smith said. “I hit it right up the middle. I chopped it a little, but it seemed like it went right at the bag and it just happened the second baseman was right there because we had guys on. We did what we could do there. They just made a good play on that ball.”
For Scott, that play ultimately summed up the difference in who would walk out on this day with the Class 1A State baseball title and who would not.
“Baseball’s a game of inches. They (Mason City Newman) takes advantage of those inches and they tighten the screws down on you,” Scott said. “That’s what good ball clubs do.”
So while this summer, it is top-ranked Mason City Newman that heads back north with a 28-6 record and a fourth state title to put in the school’s trophy case, it is Van Buren that will head back home to southeastern Iowa with state championship expectations for a program that had been looking for so long just to play on the state tournament stage. Every player returns from a Warrior team that began the year with fans not quite knowing what to expect from a program that has had so much success over the recent years.
It’s safe to say fans, players and coaches all know where they expect to be by this time next summer.
“I think our goal at the beginning of the year was to just make it to the state tournament, then we made it to the state championship game and it was awesome,” Laughlin said. “We have the same exact team back next year. The bar is set to get back to where we were (Saturday).”
STATE BASEBALL TOURNAMENT
CLASS 1A CHAMPIONSHIP
No. 1 Mason City Newman 6, Van Buren 2
MCN 014 000 1 — 6 9 0
V.B. 010 000 1 — 2 11 3
Mason City Newman battery — Kaden Wadle (W, 8-0) (6IP, 10H, 2R, 2ER, 2K, BB) and Casey Hall (IP, H, R, ER), John Waters catching.
2B — Jack Fitzgerald.
Hits — Pete Lapointe 2-3, Joe Burgmeier 2-4, Hall 1-2, Fitzgerald 1-3, Seth Hestness 1-3, Kane Louscher 1-4, Joey Verstegen 1-4.
RBI — Lapointe 4, Louscher 2.
Runs — Burgmeier 2, Parker Dondlinger, Hall, Louscher, Verstegen.
Van Buren battery — Robert Barker (L, 3-1) (3IP, 5H, 5R, ER, 4K, 2BB) and Robby Laughlin (4IP, 4H, R, ER, K, HBP), Noah Whitten catching.
Hits — Barker 2-3, Garrett Saunders 2-3, Whitten 2-3, Austin Bartholomew 1-3, Tanner Smith 1-3, Tyson Sprouse 1-3, Will Mertens 1-4, Brandon Plecker 1-4.
RBI — Saunders, Smith.
Runs — Barker, Plecker.