The Blair Senior Legion baseball team clinched the Area 3 Tournament title and a Class B state berth on a double-play ball Tuesday at Vets Field.
“You know, I didn't know how to react,” Post 154 outfielder Kaden Fletcher said, grinning. “Never been in this situation.”
The Bears and their 2021 BHS grad playing his final season figured it out, though. They celebrated on the infield grass, jumping around before grabbing their championship plaque and posing for photos. The moment was earned through a 5-0 tournament run capped by the 6-1 win against Elkhorn Training Camp/Mount Michael.
“We got momentum in the first few games and we just kept it going,” infielder Morgan Rump said. “Hitting the ball hard and playing good defense were the main things.”
Blair dominated Fort Calhoun, Arlington, Waterloo-Valley and the Knights twice despite entering the tournament just 14-16. During both the highs and lows of the regular season, the coaching staff's message remained the same.
“We said, 'You know what? It's all going to come together and we just need to make sure that we put it together at district time,'” Post 154 coach James Bilslend said. “Lo and behold.”
The Bears outscored their Area tournament opposition 38-6, finishing it off with a five-run victory. They started fast against Mount Michael, too, scoring a 3-0 lead through one inning. Nate Wachter and Greyson Kay notched RBIs before Rump scored on a collision in shallow right field caused by Tanner Jacobson's pop fly, which found the grass.
“It was definitely huge jumping on them early,” Rump said.
Bilslend credited his team's alertness and tenacity for the early advantage.
“Heads up base running and never letting up,” he said. “Anytime you can put runs up, it's huge.”
The lead swelled to 5-0 with RBI swings by Kay and Fletcher during the third frame, all while the Blair defense thwarted the Knights' efforts to draw closer on the scoreboard. It'd ended the second frame with its first double play of the night.
“Every time they got guys on base, we stayed in the game and we shut them down,” Rump said.
Wachter's second run-scoring swing of the ballgame later pushed the Bears' lead to the game's final tally, 6-1. Mount Michael earned two base runners during both the fourth and fifth innings, but the winning pitcher, Tyler Andersen, kept them from scoring both times.
“He would step off the mound, collect his composure and then go back and he would challenge a hitter,” Bilslend said. “He would throw his best pitch and challenge a hitter.”
It all led to the bottom of the seventh frame with Post 154 relief pitcher Lee Chavez-Lara on the mound to tie-up the district title. The Knights loaded the bases with one out, but a ground ball down the third-base line to Wachter was the last straw. He gloved it, registered the inning's second out there and threw to first base in hopes of the third.
“I knew he was going to step on the bag and I knew (first baseman) Dylan (Swanson), if it was a bad throw, I knew he was going to pick it,” Fletcher said. “He's been a stud this whole district.”
It worked and while Fletcher wasn't sure how to react to championship glory, he may get another chance as the Bears start a new tournament on Saturday — the state tournament in Broken Bow.
“Time to go undefeated again,” he said.
First round pairings were unavailable as of press time.
Post 154 shuts out Waterloo-Valley
Blair earned its finals standing against Mount Michael with a 4-0 tournament start capped by Monday's 7-0 win against top-seeded Waterloo-Valley.
Aided by his defense, the starting pitcher, Swanson, earned the complete-game shutout. Twice, the Bears were able to get out of bases-loaded, nobody-out situations unscathed.
The first occasion came during the first inning as Swanson forced Valley to hit the ball into the air to his defense three straight times. Then, during the third frame, a force out at home and a highlight double play turned by the Post 154 right fielder kept the top seed scoreless.
“I heard from a few people that they didn't want me to catch it,” Ethan Baessler said after the game. “But, like, I was already there.”
With one out and the bases still loaded during the third inning, the left fielder raced into foul territory and gloved the ball, conceivably allowing the base runner on third base an opportunity to score. Baessler's arm beat the base runner's legs, though. His throw hopped once into the mitt of catcher Conner O'Neil, who tagged the Valley ballplayer out to end the inning.
“Sure enough, got it there,” Baessler said.
In addition to defense, Blair scored a run apiece during the first, third and fifth innings before adding four in the sixth. Four base runners scored as a result of Wachter at-bats, while Eli Morgan and Swanson added an RBI apiece. It took more than that, though, to earn the lopsided victory.
“Making clutch bunts, getting down the baselines and going hard 100-percent every single play is what gets those runs,” Baessler said.
Bears beat Eagles, 10-1
The Post 154 lineup broke open and ended last Sunday's 10-1 game against Arlington with a seven-run, sixth frame highlighted by Baessler's inside-the-park grand slam. The Bears led 3-1, but moved to 3-0 in Area tournament play with the dominant inning.
“I was 0-for-3 on the night and it was my last at-bat,” Baessler said. “So, I was really angry at myself and I wanted to get something done.”
The high school sprinter decided he'd do all he could to get a hit.
“I got a lot more than I expected,” he said.
Overall, Blair outhit Arlington 12-4 and drew one more walk. Baessler plated Bo Nielsen, Fletcher, Jacobson and himself with one swing, while Kay finished with two RBIs, and Rump and Fletcher had one apiece.
Rump also earned the pitching win for coach Bilslend's team, striking out seven Post 71 Eagles across six innings.
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