ALLEMAN — The Big Reds are Principal Park bound once again. Centerville defeated North Polk 4-1 in a substate final showdown to capture their third straight state tournament berth.
“They’re all special, but this one is very special because of going from 2A to 3A and not getting to defend our state title,” Centerville head coach Ryan Hodges said. “We know it’s going to be dog fight but going through some of the adversity we went through is what makes these guys so special. I tell them the most mentally tough team between the ears is going to come out and win.”
Centerville had to be mentally tough early on as starting pitcher Brady Kauzlarich got into a bit of trouble in the bottom of the first inning.
Three straight walks with one out would load the bases and force an early mound visit from Hodges to see what was going on.
“I wasn’t nervous, I’ve been through this a lot. It was just the sun was right in my eyes, right over the trees and I just couldn’t see and couldn’t get my hat to block it. Whenever I went to the plate, I couldn’t see Kolby [Micetich] at all so I was battling that. So Hodges came out and said ‘you’re alright just calm down,’ and I said I’m fine, I just can’t see,” Kauzlarich said with a laugh.
Kauzlarich would walk the next batter, giving North Polk the opening run but would work around it to get the next two batters out and strand the bases loaded.
That was the only bump in the road for Kauzlarich on the mound as he would settle in after that.
“The second inning I could kind of see Kolby, like the shape of him, so it got a little better but then the third inning it kind of evened out, I could see and that’s when I started doing a lot better,” Kauzlarich said.
Kauzlarich rolled through the rest of the game, only allowing two hits while striking out seven in 6 2/3 innings.
With only one senior on the team this year, the sophomore Kauzlarich has stepped up in a leadership role for the Big Reds this year. A role that has been a key for their postseason run the past two years.
“Hodges kind of put me in the position to be a leader and with Brett being leader his senior year, he did everything he could,” Kauzlarich said. “I kind of learned from him, my dad and all of my cousins. I think we’re just made for it. Kayden [Kauzlarich] and I talk a lot and keep them hype and we try everything we can and it just works out.”
After striking out in order in the third, the Big Reds bounced back with a big fourth inning.
Brady Kauzlarich started the inning with a leadoff walk and would eventually get to third after a couple of pass balls. Kayden Kauzlarich would then hit a soft grounder to the shortstop who fired home to try to get Brady Kauzlarich, who slid head first to barely beat the tag.
“I always try to be aggressive,” Brady Kauzlarich said. “If there is one pitch or one mistake, I try to jump on it right away and I want to be in the position to jump on it right away. And with Kayden, he always hits the ball on the ground and he causes problems so I knew if I get on first, I have to get to second and look for third. He does really well at the plate, especially when I'm on, because he knows what he has to do.”
With runners now on first and second, Merrick Mathews dropped down and the hobbled sophomore, who played through an injured ankle, looked like Kirk Gibson in game one of the 1988 World Series trying to get down the first base line. But an errant throw by the North Polk defense would bring Kayden Kauzlarich around to score and give Centerville the lead.
“I told him there in that last at-bat ‘listen I know you want to hit but a perfect bunt here is going to be bigger than anything and I have the complete trust in you to do it.’ That is what we try to build. That everybody knows that they are going to be counted on to bunt even if they want to hit. And to step up in that situation, that’s what our culture is about and that’s what we want to continue to do,” Hodges said.
Kolby Micetich’s ground out to the short stop would score another run for the Big Reds, which was followed by a wild pitch that scored Kade Mosley from third to give Centerville a 4-1 lead.
Besides that inning, Centerville had a tough time figuring out North Polk’s Joe Husak, who would give up four runs, two earned, on three hits with one walk and 14 strikeouts in seven innings.
Myles Clawson would come in late to replace Brady Kauzlarich and seal the deal to get the final out for Centerville for the third consecutive game. He would force a ground out to end the game and start the dog pile as the Big Reds celebrated their third consecutive substate title win on the road.
Centerville was able to reset at the end of the regular season and win three games in a row to get back to Des Moines. An impressive feat after going through some struggles late in the year where they would lose three of their last four games and go 7-5 down the stretch.
“We got big game experience and I tell these guys to be where their feet are,” Hodges said. “I think when the postseason started, that mindset changed. It’s a long season so to stay up like this for six games is tough to do. But they know how to refocus and they know they are never out of a game and that comes back to a coaching staff that reps everything possible that could happen in a game and put them in situations in practice that is going to make them think at the plate and be tough.”
Centerville expects the fun to continue next week as a couple of the coaches have joined Micetich in sporting a mustache.
“Kolby does anyway and then for me, I don’t grow hair so I’m not going to dye my hair so they wanted me to do a mustache so coach Baze and I did mustaches,” Hodges said. “We’re trying to get Endress to do it, Hunter kind of has a little one. So we said if there is the ‘bash brothers,’ we are the ‘stache brothers.’ It’s just something the guys wanted to do and anytime we can have fun with them, you know we are going to do it.”
Could there be a new addition to the “stache brothers” for the state tournament?
“Eighth grade year I rocked it, last year I rocked it,” Kauzlarich said. “This year I tried getting a beard but it’s not looking very well, it’s the Kauzlarich a little bit. I might get a beard, I might do something crazy because we always come up with something because that’s just what we do cause we’re all goofy.”
Hodges brings his third straight team to Des Moines knowing not only what it’s like there, but what it takes to win and win a title against some of the best the state has to offer.
“It’s never easy but it’s the same dimensions as our home park, we know how to play it and we focus up there. I think once we get up there, the guys have a comfort. I hear the guys talk all the time that this is a home away from home,” Hodges said.
With several players still on the team from Centerville’s state tournament runs the past two seasons, they will bring experience and confidence as they try to bring home another title.
“I’m always confident because every team is beatable and everyone loses,” Kauzlarich said. “You have to find their weaknesses. We’ll find out who we’re going to play and we’ll scout them. And I mean we have a really good team. If we play our best, I would want to play against any team.”
No. 6 Centerville (24-6) will play No. 3 Central DeWitt (36-3) in the state quarterfinals on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. at Principal Park in Des Moines.
Colin Peters is a sports reporter for the Daily Iowegian. He can be reached at email@example.com or by calling the newsroom at 641-856-6336. Follow him on Twitter @ColinPetersDI.