—by Todd Thorson

(tthorson@storycityherald.com)

With nearly everybody in the stadium on the edge of their seats, most of them standing, and the players from both teams on the top step of the dugouts, it all came down to a wild and tense seventh inning last Tuesday night (July 23) in the 2A Sub-State final at Carroll. Three times the Norsemen and pitcher Zach Hovick had the South Central Calhoun Titans down to their last strike. And in the end, the Norse were able to get away clean for a 4-1 victory.

The bases were loaded with two outs following two back-to-back singles and a walk by the Titans. The inning started off, routinely enough, with two quick outs. But just like the district final against St. Edmond, it’s never over until it’s over. Stellar defense and a cool demeanor on the mound by Zach resulted in the Norsemen’s 27th victory of the season, and a trip to the 2A State Tournament in Des Moines. It will be Roland-Story’s first appearance at the state baseball tournament in 21 years!

"What a great victory for this program," said an elated Coach Chris Hill. "The guys have really bought into playing baseball the right way. That hard work has now paid off for them with a trip to Des Moines."

Playing error free ball, the Norsemen shut down nearly every offensive threat by South Central. The Titans did manage to punch out 10 hits, but leaving 12 runners on base in the seven inning contest resulted in too many missed opportunities for South Central. This caused the Norsemen fans, however, to remain rather uneasy throughout the entire ball game. The Titans put runners on base in every inning, and only managed to score one run, which came in the fifth after the Norse had taken a 2-0 lead.

Hand it to pitcher Zach Hovick for keeping his cool. For the third consecutive tournament game, Coach Hill called on his ace to carry the Norse to victory. Going to the mound on only three days’ rest, Hovick allowed only one earned run, struck out six and walked three.

"Zach did a great job of coming out and being competitive on three days’ rest," commented Hill. "With throwing every inning in the post-season, Zach has been a real workhorse. He got into a lot of tight spots tonight, and in those situations I think I was more nervous than he was. There are just not many people, myself included, that have more composure in tight situations than Zach. What he accomplishes while under pressure is truly a sight to see."

South Central threatened in both the sixth and seventh innings. Twice the Titans failed to advance past second base in the sixth. And in the seventh they loaded the bases with two outs. In perhaps the key moment in the game, South Central’s coach sent a 9th grader to the plate with two outs in the seventh and the bases juiced. The batter, it was reported, had not made a plate appearance all season. A bold and risky move any way you look at it. The count went to 2-2 before he struck out to end the game. As fate would allow, the outcome went in the Norsemen’s favor and the R-S boys were on their way to Principal Park.

It appeared the seventh was indeed destined to go the Norse’s way from the outset. Second baseman Brody Concannon fielded a hot smash off his chest and quickly threw to first for the first out of the inning. Brody’s defense, which has been proving itself throughout the tournament trail, came through yet again, and as tight as the seventh would eventually become, his first out proved to be a big out indeed.

Zach then caught the next batter looking for a strikeout, and the Norse were just one out away from victory. But the Titans appeared to have some fuel left in the tank.

Maintaining his composure on the mound once again, overall Zach fought off disaster on several occasions. Five times he worked the count full, only to see four of those batters reach base. But nearly each time the Titans had a base runner, the Norsemen’s stellar defense came through to get Zach and the Norse out of the inning. Three of those five "full-counters" walked and another singled. But in the end, none of those base runners were able to score. All totaled, Zach threw 128 pitches – 85 of them for strikes.

Despite being retired in order in three of their six innings at the plate, the Norsemen, unlike their counterparts, took advantage of their limited scoring opportunities. Single runs came across the plate in the first and fourth innings, followed by two runs in the fifth, which pushed the R-S lead to 4-1. All three of the Norsemen’s scoring chances came with two outs.

Andrew Schlatter put the Norse on the board first with a run-scoring triple in the first inning. The smash managed to drive in Evan Johnson, who had singled and stole second just prior to Andrew’s drive to right.

In the fourth, Roland-Story made it 2-0 when Riley Ellis singled to right, scoring Alex Muhlenburg’s pinch runner Charlie Steenhagen. Alex had singled prior to Riley’s hit. And once again, this all happened with two outs.

South Central cut the lead to 2-1 with a run of their own in the top of the fifth, courtesy of three singles and a double. Fortunately for the Norse, the Titans left the bases loaded when Zach struck out the final two batters to halt any further damage.

The Norsemen posted two insurance runs in the bottom of the fifth on a key two-out, two-run single by Tyler Hovick. That pushed the score to 4-1 with two frames left. Tyler’s single to right plated both Cole Birchmier and Alex Urbanek. Cole had reached base after getting hit by a pitch. Alex reached on an error. The South Central right fielder appeared to have trouble with the sun for the second time in the game on Tyler’s hard single.

Posting hits for the Norsemen were Tyler Hovick, Evan Johnson, Andrew Schlatter, Alex Muhlenburg and Riley Ellis. Cyle King, Brett Snyder and Jace Neubaum each had two hits for the Titans. South Central started four freshmen, brought in another 9th grader to pinch hit in the seventh and even put an 8th grader in the field in the sixth; all confident and gutsy moves by the South Central coaching staff.

The Norse had six days to prepare for their opening round game at State against Mount Vernon, so a little bit of celebrating and relishing in the moment was warranted and enjoyed by all. The hard-working Norsemen, however, realized their mission was not yet completed, as they soon began preparations for their trip to Des Moines.

A proud Norsemen boys’ baseball squad can now stake claim to another State Qualifier banner that will hang in the Roland-Story High School gym, putting plenty of smiles on the faces of the Norse players as well as the fans in Story City and Roland.