DES MOINES — Joe Balvanz knows the Dubuque Hempstead baseball team could compete with the big dogs of the powerhouse Central Iowa Metro League.
He became a believer Friday night, when the Mustangs gave his No. 2-seeded Ankeny squad a run for its money. The Hawks needed to push across a run in the bottom of the seventh inning to escape with a 9-8 victory in the Iowa Class 4A state baseball semifinals Friday night at Principal Park.
Ankeny (21-8) advanced to tonight’s championship game against a CIML rival, Urbandale or Johnston. Hempstead bowed out at 16-2. The CIML has won all but three state baseball championships in the past 25 seasons.
“I can’t speak to the depth of their pitching staff because I haven’t seen enough of it, but offensively, they would line up well with teams like us and Johnston and Urbandale, just in the way they swing the bat,” said Balvanz, the Hawks’ head coach. “They look a lot like a CIML team. They have a bunch of big, strong boys who really drive the ball. We knew we’d have our hands full with them tonight, and we feel fortunate to get out of here with a win.”
Winning pitcher Dylan Schlee, batting out of the No. 8 spot, led off the seventh inning with a towering double to the wall in left-center field, and courtesy runner Ryan Madole took third on Lucas Juhl’s perfectly executed bunt. The winning run scored on a wild pitch with leadoff man Cael Boyd at the plate.
It was a bitter ending to a game in which the Mustangs shook off a 5-0 deficit after the first inning.
“We know we can win any ballgame, even if we get down early, with the guys we have in our lineup,” junior Logan Runde said. “We’re going to hit whatever pitcher we face, and we’re going to battle until the last out. The other team just happened to have the last at-bat tonight.”
The Mustangs threatened in the top of the first inning but weren’t able to push across a run. Kellen Strohmeyer led off the game with a walk, but Ankeny caught a huge break when Zach Sabers’ hit-and-run grounder led second baseman Carter Smith to the bag for a bang-bang double play.
Andrue Henry and Runde followed with base hits, and Devin Eudaley walked to load the bases. Ankeny starter Sam Andrews struggled with his command early, but he got out of the inning when he caught Max Pins looking on a 3-2 pitch.
“Even though we didn’t score in that inning, it showed that we could compete with them,” Strohmeyer said. “We put a lot of pressure on them. We’ve faced a lot of good pitchers this year, and we’ve always been able to score against them. We knew we could do it again tonight.”
Ankeny wasted no time in scoring in the bottom of the inning, as the first six hitters in the lineup singled before Eudaley made a diving catch in right field for the first out. Mo Watson drove in the first run, the second scored on an overthrow following Brody Brecht’s infield single, and Smith made it 4-0 with a liner inside the left field line.
Kade Somers also drove in a run on Eudaley’s web gem in right field. The Hawks sent nine batters to the plate in the inning and scored five times on five hits.
“After we gave up that five-spot, I didn’t see one single player hang his head in the dugout,” Hempstead coach Jeff Rapp said. “In fact, the first thing anybody said was, ‘Five runs is nothing, guys.’
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of this group of kids for the way they competed all night. They never gave up all season. They never took anything for granted, and they appreciated all the time they had together. It’s a special group.”
Hempstead again loaded the bases in the second, when Trey Schaber and Dane Schope walked to chase Andrews from the mound, and reliever Cooper Cox hit No. 9 hitter Michael Garrett. Cox then walked Strohmeyer and Sabers to force in runs, and his night was done.
Henry greeted reliever Schlee with a long sacrifice fly to right-center field, and Runde added a long sac fly to left-center field to pull Hempstead within 5-4 without the benefit of a hit in the inning.
Ankeny responded in the bottom of the second with Smith’s two-out, two-run triple inside the left-field line. The seven runs matched the most allowed by Hempstead this season. Wahlert also scored seven times against the Mustangs in the first half of Hempstead’s July 13 doubleheader sweep at Core Field.
The Mustangs kept swinging, though, and pulled ahead with a four-run third. Pins singled and Schaber reached on an error before Garrett delivered an RBI single to right field for the first run of the inning. Schaber scored on a well-executed hit-and-run through the right side of the infield by Strohmeyer, and Garrett later came across when Ankeny mishandled a first-and-third steal attempt to tie it.
Sabers drilled a gapper to the left-center field wall to give Hempstead its first lead of the night at 8-7.
“We didn’t want to end our season tonight, so we knew we couldn’t give up after they got on top right away,” Sabers said. “We’ve come back multiple times this year. That’s what’s so great about this team, they never give up no matter what the circumstances are.
“I’m really proud of this team. All year, we made the most of everything we had this year. That’s what makes it so hard to lose this ballgame.”
An inning later, the Hawks re-tied it. Jase Bauer led off with a triple down the right-field line and scored on Watson’s bloop single to right-center.
An inning later, Watson came up with the bases loaded and two outs. But Runde struck him out to keep the game at 8-8. Schlee settled down after his rough start and earned the victory.
“He’s a guy who started the season on our sophomore team, and we called him up because we needed pitching depth,” Balvanz said. “He’s a great athlete. He really settled down, and you saw how well he can swing it.”