After disappointing Area Tournament play last summer and a 1-1 district exit during the high school season this spring, Conner O'Neil said his Blair Senior Legion baseball team was looking for a strong start at Vets Field.
The Post 154 Bears succeeded Friday and Saturday during the opening two rounds of the 2022 Class B Area 3 Tournament. Coach James Bilslend's team beat Fort Calhoun 10-0 first before an extra innings victory against the Elkhorn Training Camp (ETC) Knights that ended well after midnight.
“Great game,” infielder Greyson Kay said 12:43 a.m. Sunday. “One of the best of my life.”
First pitch came at 10:09 p.m. after an extended rain delay. The first pitch was also the first of several that contributed to five-straight Blair strikeouts as it fell behind 3-0 early.
After four scoreless innings against the Knights' Luke Broderick, though, the Bears broke through with a four-run fifth frame. Greyson Kay was the catalyst, notching a lead-off single.
Bo Nielsen and Kaden Fletcher joined their second baseman on the bags before Ethan Baessler cleared them with a three-RBI double into the outfield. Fletcher, who'd bunted on, scored easily on an off-target throw to the plate to even the score, 3-3.
Baessler then stole third and later scored the go-ahead run when Nate Wachter put the ball in play.
“We punched right in the mouth,” Kay said.
The run of offensive success chased Broderick from the game after the Mount Michael pitcher struck out 11 Post 154 batters. The momentum had shifted.
“It got stupid loud in the dugout and they went quiet over there,” Kay said.
Bears starting pitcher Tanner Jacobson held the advantage through the sixth inning when he exited. Eli Morgan stepped in to throw during the seventh and earned two quick outs, but was unable to put away the Knights, who evened the score at 4-all.
Kay said the Bears went into the eighth inning with a sense of superiority, though, knowing they'd still earn the 2-0 Area 3 Tournament start both teams sought.
Sure enough, Morgan Rump alertly turned his lead-off strikeout into a chance to run bases when the ETC catcher dropped the ball. O'Neil followed and reached on a bunt before Kay delivered the go-ahead single.
“We kept it going,” the infielder said after reaching base four times. “Kept the gas pedal going and did what we did.”
Blair's Lee Chavez-Lara took the mound during the bottom half of the eight inning and delivered three straight outs, striking the last Knight he faced out swinging. The late night completed the Bears' 2-0, strong start in Area 3 play.
Bears beat Pioneers in 1st round
First, though, the third-seeded Bears were determined not to take their sixth-seeded first round opponent lightly Friday night.
“We beat this team before and everyone was making sure that we weren't going to take them easy,” O'Neil said. “We were just going to go and play like it's the No. 1 Class A team.”
Post 154 met their own expectations, scoring four first-inning runs and defeating Fort Calhoun 10-0 in five, short frames.
“I think the biggest thing is we just came out with energy,” winning pitcher Tyler Andersen said. “Probably more energy than we came out with all season.”
Baessler set the tone early, hustling from his lead-off position and turning a Fort Calhoun error into a spot on third base to start. He scored on Dylan Swanson's RBI single before O'Neil plated two more runs with his own. The starting catcher than slid safe across home plate for the fourth first-inning run on a Pioneer pitch that got by the catcher.
Overall, Baessler, O'Neil and Wachter batted 1.000 for the game. Baessler, Wachter, Kay and Fletcher finished with one RBI apiece, while Swanson and O'Neil each notched two.
Defensively, Andersen struck out six Post 348 batters across four innings.
“Locating was the biggest thing,” he said.
Wachter then stepped in during the fifth and final inning, striking out one for coach Bilslend's Post 154 ballclub.
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