JERSEYVILLE — The Civic Memorial Eagles ran into a little small ball against the Highland Bulldogs on Wednesday in Jerseyville and it led to their demise.
The Bulldogs utilized 10 stolen bases, including home twice to best the Eagles 9-3 and oust them from the Class 3A Jersey Regional. Highland will now face No. 1 seed Jersey at 11 a.m. Saturday in the regional title tilt. The Panthers dismissed the Marquette Catholic Explorers in a dramatic 6-5 win in the early game Wednesday.
CM, which magically transformed a slow start into a torrid finish on its season, finished up at 18-15 after starting 0-5 and once being a lowly 4-11. Highland improved to 22-10 with the victory.
“Believe it or not we spent 30 minutes on pickoff moves, first and thirds. I know it didn't look like it, but that was Saturday's practice the last 30 minutes because we knew they were going to run, we knew they were going to bunt,” CM head coach Gary Bruening said. “The first time we played them they got the big lead and they could do that. The second time we jumped up four runs in the first and took the game away from them. When we gave up three runs in the first inning on one hit (tonight) and they saw that they could make us make plays and they could run on us, Joel (Hawkins) does a good job with that. That's their game and they did it to perfection tonight.”
The Bulldogs started quickly. Will Greenwald was hit by a pitch to start the bottom of the first, Cody Bentlage followed by reaching on a throwing error on his sacrifice bunt and Grant Geppert walked to load the bases. Andrew Winning then hit a sac fly to score Greenwald to make it 1-0, while Bentlage tagged up and raced to third. Bentlage and Geppert then performed a successful delayed double steal, with Geppert taking second and Bentlage swiping home to make it 2-0.
Jordan Smith finally poked a single through the right side and Geppert scored from second to make it 3-0 in favor of Highland. The frame ended with three runs on one hit for the Bulldogs.
“It was huge,” Highland head coach Joel Hawkins said. “The first inning of these playoff games is everything. I bet you more games are won in the first than in the seventh inning. We talked about winning the first inning, you've got to get the first inning and tonight we were lucky enough to get it.”
The early lead proved key because the Eagles weren't going away quietly. They quickly dwindled the deficit to 3-2 in the top of the second.
Devin Daniels led off with a single and Connor Bryant followed with a walk, setting up Cory Price's one-out double that painted the left field line and scored Daniels. Pitcher Zac Cato then helped himself out, grounding out to plate Bryant and make it 3-2.
But Highland responded in the home half of the inning. Griffin Welz led off with a single, was sacrificed to second moved to third on Greenwald's infield single. A balk then allowed Welz to score and Greenwald to advance to second. Greenwald stole third and scored on a CM error on Geppert's grounder to make it 5-2.
Seth Luitjohan entered as a courtesy runner and stole second and third. Winning was issued a walk and as he got caught between first and second trying to steal, Luitjohan broke for home and swiped home. Winning was tagged out, but not before the Bulldogs had made it 6-2.
The Eagles cut it to 6-3 in the fourth. John Whitworth led off with a single up the middle and came around to score on Tyler Andrus' two-out base knock, but after consecutive walks to Brandon Hampton and Lukas Jones CM left the bases loaded.
The Eagles left two more on in the fifth and failed to take advantage of Highland's lone error on an errant throw. The Bulldogs then put it away in the bottom of the fifth with three more runs, highlighted by a two-run single by Matt Augustin to elevate it to 9-3.
“You can pick any phase of the game tonight and we didn't play well,” said Bruening. “On the mound, obviously (Zac) Cato has been lights out lately. He gave up some tainted runs, but that's not something he's been giving up. Offensively I remember leaving the bases loaded with a strike out, second and third with one out and we popped up and struck out. We left eight on and they were coming through with a two-out hit, a hit here and there and we weren't.”
Hawkins pieced together a committee pitching outing to get it done. The Highland starter Geppert went 3.2 innings, fanning four but walking six while allowing all three runs on four hits. Pete Baumgartner and Tyler Kimmle worked a combined 3.1 innings of scoreless relief.
“We were hoping Grant would have a little more command,” Hawkins said. “His misses were bad misses. Then Pete came in and got a couple outs and we got lucky in that inning. We got a throw out in front of two runners, because they ended up at second and third in the (fifth). We were real lucky to get through that inning and I think that was kind of the end.”
It's tough to see the end for the Eagles, whose turnaround was magnificent in 2015. They went 14-4 after starting 4-11 to end the season three games above .500. They even turned an 0-3 start in the Mississippi Valley Conference into a share of the league title by finishing with a 6-4 conference mark.
It's a season Bruening won't soon forget and he'll sorely miss the 10-member senior class he's losing. He hopes they won't soon forget what they accomplished either.
“It's a bummer now obviously, but it's a positive when they look back on it,” Bruening said. “I don't know if they realize it now. I just told them, 'We're going to go over the negative first, which is tonight obviously, but from where you guys started to where we ended up is what I want you guys to take out of this season.' We didn't see it coming, the kids did it, they changed it and every time they walk into that gym now they're going to see a 2015 conference championship and that's what I want them to remember.”
CLASS 3A JERSEY REGIONAL
HIGHLAND 9, CM 3
CM 020 100 0 — 3 6 2
Highland 330 030 X — 9 8 1
CM (18-15) — Brandon Hampton 0-3 BB, Lukas Jones 0-2 2 BBs, Devin Daniels 2-3 BB SB, Connor Bryant 0-2 2 BBs, John Whitworth 2-3, Cory Price 1-2 2B BB RBI, Zac Cato 0-2 RBI, Tyler Andrus 1-2 HBP RBI.
LP — Cato 4.0IP 6H 8R 4ER 3BB 2K 1HBP
Hampton 2.0IP 2H 1R 1ER 1BB 3K 1HBP
HIGHLAND (22-10) — Will Greenwald 1-3 HBP SB, Cody Bentlage 0-2 BB SAC 3 SBs, Andrew Winning 1-1 SAC BB HBP SB RBI, Jordan Smith 1-3 SAC RBI, Matt Augustin 2-3 SB 2 RBIs, Sam Greene 1-3, Griffin Welz 2-3, Tyler Kimmle 0-1 2 SACs.
WP — Grant Geppert 3.2IP 4H 3R 3ER 6BB 4K
Pete Baumgartner 1.1IP 2H 0R 0ER 1BB 2K
Kimmle 2.0IP 0H 0R 0ER 0BB 4K