DEWITT, Iowa — Knowing the opponent had just grinded through a 16-inning barnburner just two nights earlier, spending its top two pitchers in the process, Dubuque Wahlert players knew the opportunity might be there to sneak by a stout DeWitt Central team and earn a return trip to the Iowa Class 3A state baseball tournament next week.

While there were tears in the end for the Golden Eagles, they also walked out of the DeWitt ballpark on Wednesday knowing they’d left it all out on the field against a three-loss team.

No. 3 Sabers starter Garrett Finley threw a complete game to propel third-ranked DeWitt Central to a 3-2 Substate 4 final win over Wahlert. The win sends the Sabers (36-3) to their third state tournament in the last decade.

The loss obviously stings a Wahlert team that feels it belongs in the mix at Des Moines’ Principal Park. But the Eagles also played about as clean of a game as they could versus one of the state’s toughest squads this year.

“Our mindset was that we were going to compete every single at bat, every single pitch,” said Wahlert designated hitter Bennett Cutsforth, who drove in both of the Eagles’ runs on sacrifice RBIs. “That’s exactly what we did. We competed every single time. And I’m so proud of these guys. They’re a great program, very well-coached. It didn’t go our way, but I’m very proud of this team.”

Over 6 ½ innings, both teams flashed their gloves and both starting pitchers kept the opponents off the bags. Neither team had an error in the contest. The game featured putouts at the plate, pickoffs and throwouts in a contest that could’ve gone either way.

The top of Wahlert’s order, specifically, couldn’t figure out Finley. The Nos. 1-3 batters went a combined 0-for-10 at the plate.

“We knew what Finley wanted to do and to his credit, he did it,” said Eagles coach Kory Tuescher. “We’re very thankful to be here. It’s never easy when you get this close. You don’t go 36-3 with their schedule without good reason. Even still, we had an opportunity to win the ball game and it just didn’t go our way this time.”

On the mound for Wahlert (18-22) was Jared Walter, who matched Finley’s prowess, if not exceeded it. The sophomore threw all six innings, giving up just six hits and striking out six.

But after 2 ½ scoreless frames, the Sabers finally broke through. With runners on second and third and two outs, the Eagles intentionally walked Finley to load the bases. Tucker Kinney followed with a single to left to give the Sabers a 2-0 lead.

Wahlert cut the deficit in half in the next inning. Jackson Frese singled to left and was subbed off the bags for Sam Pregler. Pregler advanced all the way to third on Jared Weber’s double and came home on Cutsforth’s sac fly to right, trimming DeWitt Central’s lead to 2-1.

The Sabers earned another two-out run in the bottom half with Henry Bloom’s RBI single, and Cutsforth drove in another run (Derek Tauber) in the sixth to make it a one-run game entering the top of the seventh.

Finley closed the door with a 1-2-3 inning, striking out leadoff hitter Jake Brosius in the final at bat to end the Eagles’ season.

“That’s part of being a good team, you can fight through this stuff,” said Central coach Shane Sikkema. “We’re an average hitting team, we’re a great pitching team, we’re a great defensive team. And because of those last two things, we’re able to grind through games like this one tonight.”

Weber led all batters going 3-for-3 at the plate with a double.

There’s another silver lining, Wahlert players said, besides the fact that they fought hard. This is a young roster that they feel has the potential to be right back in the thick of things next summer.

“We can always look for improvements and we’re going to really miss our seniors next year,” Cutsforth said. “But we had a lot of young guys step up and I’m really excited for what next year has to offer.”

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