BETHALTO — Gary Bruening’s final game as the Civic Memorial High baseball coach featured an unexpected twist and untimely finish Monday.
The Eagles couldn’t hold a two-run lead in the seventh and bowed to Triad, 5-3, in a Class 3A Highland Regional play-in game at the Bethalto Sports Complex. The 11-23 Knights advanced to the semifinals of the Highland Regional and will play Jersey in a 7 p.m. game at Optimist Field in Glik Park on Wednesday.
CM finished 18-16-1 after watching Triad score four times in the top of the seventh. The Eagles responded by putting runners on first and second with one out in the bottom of the inning. However, Triad first baseman Mack Langdon snagged Brandon Hampton’s hard-hit line drive and turned it into an unassisted double play.
“I never thought I would go out of coaching on a line-drive double play,” Bruening said of the game-ender. “The difference was that Triad made the plays and we didn’t make them.”
CM led 3-0 after three innings and held a 3-1 advantage going into the seventh. Yet that’s when Triad went to work and closed out Bruening’s career.
Merik’s Fulton one-out RBI triple chased Hampton, the CM starter, as the Knights cut the Eagles’ lead to 3-2. John McGee’s run-scoring single off Eagles’ reliever John Whitworth tied things.
Then CM’s third infield error in the final two innings kept Triad percolating. One out later, Nick Beeler singled to give the Knights a 4-3 lead and teammate Keith Smith added another RBI single to cap the four-run uprising.
“We took some good at-bats at the end of our game and things broke our way,” Triad coach Jesse Bugger said.
He figured the Knights were due to catch a break after losing to CM twice during the regular season and going winless in the Mississippi Valley Conference.
It came with the game on the line this time.
“We’ve played in a lot of close games this season, but haven’t had much of that,” Bugger said of good fortune. “It’s our biggest win of the year.”
Bruening added, “They deserved to win.”
Triad outhit CM, 9-5 and the Eagles committed three errors, two more than the Knights.
Hampton went 1-for-3 with a double and scored twice to generate some offense. He pitched 6.1 innings, giving up 6 hits and 3 runs, 2 of them earned. Whitworth absorbed the tough-luck loss.
“Brandon pitched great, but his pitches were getting up in the strike zone during the seventh inning,” Bruening said of switching to Whitworth.
Gavin Gibbs of Triad pitched four shutout innings in relief to log the victory. Beeler worked the first three innings.
“He kept us off-balance,” Bruening said of Gibbs.
Bugger pointed out, “Once you get to an elimination game, you want to have options and Gibbs did a good job pitching.”
Corey Price of the Eagles went 1-for-3 with a run-scoring double in the third and teammate Jaxsen Helmkamp hit a sacrifice fly in that inning. Hampton scored the Eagles’ initial run in the first inning when he raced home from third on a throwing error. Caden Clark went 2-for-3 and was the lone Eagle with a pair of hits.
McGee and Smith of Triad both went 2-for-4 and McGee scored on an error in the sixth inning. The Knights left the bases loaded in that inning, but didn’t miss their opportunities in the seventh.
“All heck broke loose in that seventh inning,” Bruening said of the improbable defeat.
So the Eagles will be seeking a new head baseball coach next season. Bruening guided them for 20 years — from 1995-2011 and then from 2014-16. He retired once, but came back.
The 60-year-old Bruening intends to stay retired this time. The Eagles were 352-266 during his two decades of coaching them.
“My resignation letter is already written,” he said. “So this one is for good.”
He noted, “I’ll miss the coaches and the players, but I’ll come back to watch some games. We have good kids here and they are hard workers.
“I’ve enjoyed it," said Bruening,a CM graduate and coach in the school district for 38 years. "It's time for the younger guys to take over now."
CLASS 3A HIGHLAND REGIONAL
TRIAD 5, CM 3
Triad 000 001 4 – 5 9 1
CM 102 000 0 – 3 4 3
Triad (12-23) – Merik Fulton 1-3 3B RBI, John McGee 2-4 RBI, Cole Witzig 1-4, Nick Beeler 1-3 RBI, Kevin Smith 2-4 RBI, Zach Kraabel 1-3, Drew Travis 1-3 2B. WP – Gavin Gibbs IP-4 H-2 R-0 BB-1 K-1; Beeler IP-3 H-3 R-3 ER-2 BB-1 K-2.
CM (18-16-1) – Brandon Hampton 1-3 2B, Jaxsen Helmkamp 0-1 RBI, Corey Price 1-3 2B RBI, John Whitworth 1-2 3B, Caden Clark 2-3. LP – Whitworth IP-.2 H-3 R-2 ER-0 BB-0 K-2; Hampton IP-6.1 H-6 R-3 ER-2 BB-1 K-8