DES MOINES — Their ace pitcher struggled to find the strike zone, walking as many in the second inning (three) as he had in a game all year.
They had a runner thrown out at the plate.
They finished fourth in their conference and Thursday they started one senior at a defensive position. They were facing the tournament’s top-rated and top-seeded team, a conference champion that started six seniors.
Finally, they trailed 2-0 in the sixth inning to a pitcher who hadn’t lost all year.
But despite all the evidence to the contrary, Carroll Kuemper refused to believe that this wasn’t its day.
The 10th-rated Knights tied the game in the top of the sixth, but Dyersville Beckman had the final word, scoring four runs in the bottom of the frame off weary-armed Chris Halbur, and went on to a 6-3 Class 2-A state semifinal victory at Principal Park.
“You can’t fault the kids’ effort,” Kuemper coach Randy Snyder said. “They fought their hearts out. We lost to a very good team. They’re the No. 1 seed for a reason.”
Beckman (37-7) will play in a state championship game for the 10th time at noon Saturday, going for its fourth title against third-rated, third-seeded North Polk (31-4), a 2-1 winner against defending champion Davis County.
Fourth-seeded Kuemper, which reached the semis for the fifth time in six state appearances, closed at 27-12. Its top finishes are runner-up showings in 2005 and 2010. The Hawkeye Ten Conference entry came in having won 17 of 18, recovering from a 10-10 start.
“We can’t hang our heads about this,” Snyder said. “This was a great experience for our younger guys. We bring back eight seniors next year, and we have a very nice JV program, so we’ll just keep knocking on the door until we get in. One of these years we’ll get in.”
The odds seemed stacked against Kuemper from the outset Thursday, after a second inning in which Halbur walked in a run, and the Blazers plated another on an error for a 2-0 lead.
The Knights also lost some wind in the fourth, when center fielder Connor Golden threw a strike to gun down Logan Nolting at the plate after Kolby Hilgenberg’s single up the middle. That kept Beckman up 2-0.
But Kuemper finally found something to feel good about in the sixth.
Nolting led off with a single, but was forced out at second on Halbur’s fielder’s choice grounder. Bryce Wessels laid down a bunt, and the throw to first was dropped by the first baseman for an error, putting runners at first and second.
Alex Drees singled up the middle, and courtesy runner Colby Baumhover ran through coach Mark Feilmeier’s stop sign at third and scored on a close play at the plate for a 2-1 game.
That brought up senior designated hitter Chris Uhlenkamp, a .224 hitter entering state. He looped a double just inside the right-field line, scoring Wessels and putting runners at second and third.
With the go-ahead run 90 feet away, Beckman coach Tom Jenk Jr. pulled starter Joey Lehmann in favor of Nate Steger. The move paid off, as Steger struck out No. 9 batter Riley Bach on three pitches.
Kuemper squandered an opportunity to get out of the bottom of the sixth. With a runner at first and one out, Michael Boeckenstedt hit a hard ground ball at shortstop David Hicks. He flipped to Carter Ludwig for the second out, but the relay throw was wide, keeping the inning alive.
Ty Troutman singled to put runners at first and second. Halbur then started Robbie Anstoetter out 3-0 before the count was full. With the Kuemper fans rising to their feet, Anstoetter singled just over the second baseman’s head into short right to score Boeckenstedt for a 3-2 lead.
“Coach was telling me to take a pitch,” at 3-0, Anstoetter said. “He got it to a full count, and thankfully I got it in play.”
That brought up Steger, who shared the state lead with 25 doubles. He drilled a 0-1 offering to the fence for a three-run double that gave him the state lead. It also gave him the state lead for RBIs with 69.
Despite not having his best stuff, Halbur kept his team in the game. He threw 132 pitches, allowing 10 hits while striking out six, walking five and hitting one.
“That’s the kind of pitcher he is,” Snyder said. “We got to 120 (pitches), and I said, ‘Chris, I’ve got to pull you.’ He said, ‘No, I’m not coming out.’ He’s going to give us a chance to win.”
With two outs in the seventh, Nolting walked, Halbur singled and Wessels doubled home Nolting for a 6-3 game. But Steger got Hilgenberg on a comebacker to end it.
“That’s what we told them. ‘Hey, just battle. See how far we can get here,’” Snyder said. “We had a chance at the end.”
Just three of the nine players in Kuemper’s lineup Thursday started in last year’s semifinal loss to Gilbert.
“A lot of these guys didn’t play last year,” Snyder said. “Yeah, we had a dream of winning the whole thing. But you know, Chris threw 130 pitches. There was no way he was going to be able to come back and throw Saturday again.”
The Kuemper coach also praised the team’s three seniors, Hicks, Uhlenkamp and reserve Chase Prebeck.
“It was a great season, to play with all these guys,” Hicks said. “Our junior class was really good. I’m going to miss them. It was a lot of fun. We had a good run there at the end.”
Carroll Kuemper (27-12) .................. 000 002 1—3 8 1
Dyersville Beckman (37-7) .................. 020 004 x—6 10 1
W: Nate Steger, 6-1. L: Chris Halbur, 8-2. 2B: CK, Bryce Wessels, Chris Uhlenkamp. DB, Steger, Lucas Jacque.
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