—by Todd Thorson

(tthorson@storycityherald.com)

The Norsemen boys (28-13) have continued to defy the odds and test the patience of the baseball gods as of late, grasping three tournament victories from the clutches of near defeat. Monday at the opening round of the 2A State Tournament was just another one of those tense and thrilling moments that players and fans of this Roland-Story baseball team have grown accustomed to. It appears to be almost illogical what the Norsemen are doing lately. Even their coach, Chris Hill, has been stunned at times by the sheer amazement of it all:

"This has been great!" said the elated Head Coach following the Norsemen’s exciting victory over Mount Vernon (26-15) on Monday, "The guys continue to shine in these pressure situations. You can’t say enough about the kids’ character when they can come up and get the key hit or make the key play. It just says a lot about them. This whole ride has been intense! We’re not going to blow anyone out. Our thing has been the 1-0 or 2-1 ball games all along, and then we take advantage of our situations."

The Norse turned aside a couple of rallies by Mount Vernon in the final two innings to defeat the Mustangs 2-1 and advance to the 2A semifinals tomorrow night (Thursday) at 6 p.m. at Principal Park in Des Moines. The Norse will face #1 seed Beckman-Dyersville, a 3-2 winner in the second game Monday afternoon over Columbus Catholic.

In what turned out to be a pitcher’s duel between the Norsemen’s Zach Hovick (12-3) and the Mustangs’ Cal Kragenbrink (5-1), runs became hard to come by on both sides. Kragenbrink was 5-0 coming into the contest, with a miniscule .47 ERA (second best in the 2A field). Zach’s ERA was impressive in its own right at 1.25. Mount Vernon had also not allowed a run in three post season shutouts. In the end, Zach went seven innings, scattering five hits, striking out five, walking four and allowing just one earned run. Kragenbrink also went all seven innings, giving up just four hits, two earned runs, striking out four and walking none. At one point from the first through sixth, he retired 16 R-S batters in a row.

On paper, it appeared the Norse may have been in trouble from the outset, as nearly the entire Mustang lineup was batting .300 or better. Mount Vernon’s lead-off man Trey Ryan led the team with a .407 batting average. Fortunately, the Norsemen were able to contain him, as he failed to get on base in four trips to the plate. By comparison, the Norse have only three batters hitting .300 or better this season.

The Norsemen wasted little time from the beginning, as lead-off batter Zach Hovick lined a single to left on a 1-2 count in the first inning. Tyler Hovick then sacrificed Zach to second by laying down a bunt. Following a ball-one wild pitch that sent Zach to third, Evan Johnson’s sacrifice fly to center scored Zach for a 1-0 R-S lead.

Zach then settled in on the mound, striking out the last two Mustangs to end the first – one looking on a wicket off-speed 3-2 pitch, the other on three consecutive strikes. The Norsemen, however, were unable to add to their lead, as their offense sputtered for the next five innings. From the second through the fifth, the Norse were retired in order.

Mount Vernon finally managed to tie the game at 1-1 in the bottom of the fourth on a squeeze play that took three attempts before succeeding.

The Mustangs, once again, threatened in the fifth, putting two runners on at second and third, following a single, a walk and a couple of steals. A fly out to center fielder Andrew Schlatter ended the inning with no damage done.

The Norse broke their string of 16 straight batters retired in the sixth when Alex Urbanek ended the drought by crushing a 2-2 pitch to left-center that split the gap for a one-out double.

With Charlie Steenhagen pinch running, back to back singles by Zach and Tyler Hovick drove in Steenhagen for the go-ahead run; with Tyler getting the RBI.

Evan Johnson almost made it 4-1 when his drive to the track in left was caught on a nice catch by Mount Vernon’s left fielder Collin Smith. Schlatter then lined out hard to second to end the inning with the Hovicks still on base.

That’s how the Norsemen have been playing all season, stringing together the hits they do get to score a run here or there. "We take advantage of the other team’s mistakes, and execute," commented Coach Hill. "It’s how our season has gone. It all just comes together."

Following a lead-off single by Connor Welch to start the bottom of the sixth for Mount Vernon, a cat and mouse game ensued. Pitcher Zach Hovick proceeded to throw over to first baseman Alex Urbanek nine times to try and keep Welch on the bag. But Welch finally stole second to put the tying run in scoring position for the Mustangs. Two big strikeouts followed, however. Zach then went 3-0 on Spencer Drahos, thus sending Coach Hill to the mound for a quick visit with his ace. Zach would walk Drahos on the next pitch, putting two runners on with two outs. A hard smash to Brody Concannon at second, which he slightly bobbled, was quickly thrown to first for the final out and the Norse still were clinging to a 2-1 lead.

After going down 1-2-3 in the top of the seventh, the Norsemen buckled down and emerged from their dugout ready to play defense for hopefully the last time.

Noah Dahlstrom quickly flew out to right fielder Colton Finley on the first pitch. An 0-2 grounder to third baseman Riley Ellis forced lead-off man Trey Ryan, and now there were quickly two outs. With the R-S fans now standing and cheering on every pitch, with only one out remaining, C.J. Eldred momentarily silenced the crowd by singling to right field, bringing in pinch runner Johnny See with the potential tying run.

On yet another hard smash to second, Concannon knocked it down yet again, stuck with it and threw a tad wide to first. Alex Urbanek, however, stretched just enough to keep his foot on the bag, forcing Marquis Dew for the final out. Alex leaped for joy with the rest of his teammates, as the team quickly began celebrating in front of their dugout and fans along the third base line.

"What a tough kid," stated Hill about his fine second baseman Brody Concannon. "Takes a certain kind of guy to be able to stand there and get in front of (a hard hit ball like) that."

Coach Hill also praised the contingent of Roland-Story fans, which appeared to outnumber Mount Vernon’s group by a ratio of 2 to 1: "The fans have been great!" he said. "Hopefully we can keep this going for a little longer. Couple more would be nice, huh?"

Roland-Story had four hits, two by Zach Hovick and the other two by Tyler Hovick and Alex Urbanek. Conner Welch had two of the Mustangs’ five hits from his clean-up spot. One of the keys to the ball game, however, was the eight men left on base by the Mustangs. Roland-Story only stranded two.

Plans called for Zach to once again take to the mound in the semifinal game, according to Coach Hill. "He’s going to be sore, I’m sure," he said. "But as long as he feels good he’ll be good to go. He would tell me if he wasn’t able to go."

Following the huge victory, their first ever at state, Coach Hill and his players planned to watch the remaining three 2A games before heading home for two days of rest. Some reflection of what they had just accomplished, I’m sure, would also be enjoyed. Then the preparation for what lies ahead would soon take precedent.

Congratulations to the Roland-Story Norsemen boys’ baseball team and Coach Chris Hill. Good luck tomorrow night!