With tickets to the state tournament already punched, the only thing the WESTCO Zephyrs and Kearney Runza senior legion baseball teams needed to decide during Monday's Class A, Area 7 championship game was their travel plans.
After rallying for an 8-4 win, Kearney captured its eighth straight A-7 title to qualify for the American Division of the Class A state tournament in Lincoln. With their runner-up finish, the Zephyrs are state-bound for a third straight year. WESTCO will travel to Omaha to play in the National Division of the state tournament. Both double-elimination tournaments get underway on Saturday.
The Zephyrs earned their state berth on Sunday when they registered a 15-7 win over Hastings Five Points Bank. A 12-run third inning proved to be the difference maker as the Zephyrs enacted revenge on the same team that handed them a disappointing setback in the first round of the tournament on Friday night. That win came a day after WESTCO posted a 9-1 victory over North Platte behind the strong arm of pitching ace Eric Moreno.
“It was a great recovery by our guys,” Zephyrs coach Mark Moran said of his squad's ability to shake off its first-round loss and qualify for state. “We were a little frustrated after Friday night's loss, but then we came back and played great on Saturday and Sunday to get to this point. It was just a great recovery by our guys.”
The opportunity to play for the area title was something the Zephyrs had their sights set on.
“We were excited to get a chance to play Kearney,” Moran said. “It was a much more relaxed atmosphere today from our team and the Kearney team just because we both knew we were in.”
Kearney coach Brad Archer echoed Moran's sentiments about the lack of pressure on both teams in the final round.
“I think everybody would agree that it takes the pressure off knowing that you're in the state tournament,” said Archer, whose team outscored its three opponents 36-13 this week. “From that standpoint, you just want to come out and try to play a good ball game, and not overtax your pitchers who have already thrown. We didn't get too high or too low knowing we were already in. We just wanted to come out and play the best baseball we could.”
The Zephyrs, who needed two wins to claim the area title, gave Kearney all it could handle. Behind a solid pitching effort from Dylon Busskohl, WESTCO held the powerful Kearney offense to just a pair of runs through six innings of play.
WESTCO tied the game at 2-2 in the top of the second when Leighton Freeze singled home Beau Lofink. Freeze then scored on an error.
The Zephyrs went in front for the first time in the top of the third when Ty Benson scored on a single off the bat of Moreno.
WESTCO's advantage grew to 4-2 in the sixth. After loading the bases, Benson chased home Freeze with a sacrifice fly.
Kearney finally broke through at the plate in the bottom of the seventh by erupting for five runs. Thomas Connely's two-run single put Kearney back in front for good. Alec Kowalski followed with a run-scoring single in the frame. Kearney added an insurance run in the eighth.
Archer hoped his offense would eventually find a way to scratch across some runs at some point.
“I was hoping we would, but it didn't look good early,” he said. “Their pitcher did a good job throwing a lot of strikes and he had us out on our front foot a little bit. We were able to hang in there and that's the advantage of a nine-inning game. We knew we still had a shot in the seventh with a couple of at bats left.”
Jamieson Oertle pitched three scoreless innings in relief of Mitch Hiemstra to earn the win on the mound. Oertle struck out four and didn't allow a hit. Hiemstra gave up three earned runs on seven hits, walked four, and struck out three.
“It's one of our goals to start the year,” Archer said of winning another A-7 title. “I'm happy for the kids and I'm really happy we were able to win it in the first game to be quite honest. We knew it would be a good game. Give Scottsbluff a lot of credit, especially early in the ball game.”
Busskohl gave the Zephyrs 6 1/3 innings of solid work on the mound before giving way to Benson. Busskohl held Kearney to just five hits, walked five, and struck out two.
“Dylon pitched well,” Moran said. “He did a great job getting that deep in the game where we were still in it and had a chance to win. I give Kearney credit. That's a good hitting team with a good lineup.”
Freeze led WESTCO offensively by going 3-for-4 with two runs scored and one run batted in. Moreno added a pair of hits. Jacob Schmid and Robbie Cantril also had hits for the Zephyrs.
Connely and Anthony Pacheco led Kearney at the plate with two hits each.
The Zephyrs will take a 35-15 record into the state tournament. WESTCO will play at 3 p.m. on Saturday against the winner of the A-2 tournament, which is still in progress. Omaha Creighton Prep's P.I. Midwest is in the championship game as the top seed. Rain delayed the action over the weekend.
“I love going and it's a great experience. It never gets old,” Moran said of state. “I think our draw is going to be Creighton Prep, and they finished third in the nation last year. That's about as tough of a first-round draw as you're going to get. We're going to go down there, give it our best, and see what happens.”
Zephyrs (35-15) .................... 021 001 000 — 4 7 4
Kearney (27-17) .................... 200 000 51x — 8 5 3
WP — Jamieson Oertle. LP — Dylon Busskohl (5-4). 2B — Thomas Connely.
Zephyrs ....................... 00(12) 000 201 — 15 12 2
Hastings ...................... 003 000 400 — 7 7 3
WP — Leighton Freeze (5-1). LP — Kyle Goldenstein. HR — Xander Schmidt. 2B — Austin Murphy (2), Ty Benson (2), Eric Moreno.