Wolves win it all
JAMESTOWN It was a game that had a bit of everything. There were as many big hits as there were walks thrown, as much drama as there was sloppy play in the field.
But in the end, the top-seeded Watford City baseball team claimed its first Class B state championship with a 9-4 win over unseeded Hazen on Saturday at Jack Brown Stadium. It was the Wolves’ first appearance in the title game and just their second state tournament appearance.
Now, Watford City can hang their hats on a championship season in just its sixth year as an independent program.
“It’s just a testament to the kids,” Watford City coach Justin Johnsrud said. “They stayed strong mentally after an injury, after (Hazen) tied it up. They kept the same approach at the plate and did what they’ve done all year.”
The Wolves finished the game with a five-run advantage, but the game was much closer than the final score might suggest.
Watford City starter Dakota Neether was shaky to start, walking the first three batters he faced. After picking off Hazen’s senior leadoff man Connor Doll, Nate Leintz stood at the plate with runners on first and second.
Facing an 0-1 count, Leintz lined a fastball right back at Neether, who made the knee-jerk grab, turned and doubled off senior Kolby Metzger to relinquish the threat.
Neether’s struggles continued in the second.
After retiring two of the first three batters he faced, the Watford City lefty walked the next three, the last of which scored senior Austin Cieslak for the Bison’s first run. After two innings, Neether had allowed seven walks on 55 pitches (33 balls).
“When we play, it’s not usually that loud,” said Neether, who allowed four runs (one earned) on three hits and 10 walks in five innings on the mound. “These fans really had a lot of impact on me.”
The Wolves wasted no time in taking their first lead.
With one out in the first, senior infielder Brandon Allex send a deep fly ball to right, which bounced out of outfielder Chase Bruner’s glove, allowing Allex to reach second safely on the error. Junior David Kline brought him in on a single down the left-field line.
Two batters later, senior player of the year Andrew Sampsel ripped a double to deep left, bringing Kline around to score from first to double Watford City’s advantage.
“We were fortunate enough to get the bats going and take control of these last two games,” Johnsrud said.
A good dose of two-out production doubled the Wolves’ lead again in the second. Wiedrich induced a pair of quick Watford City outs but proceeded to allow three consecutive singles to left. With the bases loaded, Trent Grimes made it four straight hits for the Wolves with a sharp drive past Borlaug at second and into right field, scoring two more.
It was a 4-1 lead for Watford City with four in the books, but in the top of the fifth, Hazen took advantage of sloppy Watford City fielding to tie the game.
Borlaug drew Neether’s ninth walk of the game to lead off the inning, followed by a bloop single from Metzger to put runners on first and second.
Senior Nate Leintz then laid down a bunt up the third-base line to advance the runners, but Mitch Liebel’s throw sailed over Sampsel’s head and into right field, allowing Leintz to advance to third, scoring Borlaug and Metzger to bring the score within a run.
Then, after a pair of strikeouts, Neether made it 10 walks on the day, putting Murschel on first. Three pitches later, Murschel took off for second, drawing a throw from the catcher Shores which sailed into center field, bringing Leintz in to tie the game.
But Hazen’s joy didn’t last long.
Metzger plunked Liebel with the first pitch he threw in the bottom of the inning. His second pitch went to the backstop, allowing Liebel to move to second. After a Neether strikeout, Keegan Thompson launched an RBI double over Connor Doll’s head in center to reclaim the lead for the Wolves. Two more hits stretched the lead to two, punctuated by a Quayde Shores RBI single to right.
“Give them credit,” Hazen coach Brent Hysjulien said. “They’ve got a real nice team.”
Shores was injured on the next play while sliding into second base in what appeared to be a lower leg injury. He was carted off after roughly five minutes of on-the-field treatment.
With runners on the corners and two outs in the fifth, David Kline picked his team back up with a standup, two-RBI double to make it 8-4. The next at-bat, Trent Grimes provided the final run of the game with a sharp single to right.
Bison players were clearly broken up after the loss, including Hysjulien, who believes his team grew closer as the season wore on.
“Earlier in the year, I don’t think the team would have been this emotional,” he said. “When you start believing in yourself and you try to make a goal a reality and you don’t get it, it hurts a lot.”
The Bison finish the season 18-9.
Semifinal: Hazen 5,
No. 2 Grafton 3
In a game interrupted by Friday’s inclement weather, one swing of the bat lifted Hazen to its first appearance in the state title game Saturday.
With two runners in scoring position and his team leading 3-2 in the fifth, infielder Austin Cieslak stepped to the plate for the Bison against Grafton starter Hunter Baldwin. Prior to the at-bat, Cieslak had just one extra-base hit on the season.
The 6-foot-2 senior picked a good time to notch his second.
Cieslak took the Baldwin offering to deep left for a two-RBI double in what proved to be the game-winning hit. The Bison went on to win 5-3.
“That’s the hardest ball he’s hit all year to be quite honest, and he picked a good time to do it,” Hazen coach Brent Hyejulien said with a chuckle. “It was a huge hit.”
A six-time state qualifier in track and field and this season’s Class B shot-put champion, Cieslak was thrilled to contribute to such a crucial victory.
“I was just really in the moment,” said Cieslak, playing in his first season with the Hazen baseball team. “I struck out the first two at-bats, and I knew I had to come up with a big hit with guys on base. I’m just really happy I hit that ball.”
In the bottom half of the inning, the Spoilers responded with a run of their own, but it was all the defending state runner-up could manage.
Hazen pitcher Connor Doll, who started the game Friday night before play was suspended, returned to the bump Saturday for four strong innings. He allowed just one earned run on five hits and four walks, striking out five.
Thursday’s starter Kolby Metzger closed things out for the Bison, fanning two of the three batters he faced in a perfect seventh.
“I can’t even put it into words right now. It feels like I’m floating right now, I guess,” said Doll following his fourth win of the season. “It’s been a heck of a journey.”
Semifinal: No. 1 Watford City 11, No. 4 Velva-Drake-Anamoose 4
The Wolves struggled to get things going offensively in Thursday’s quarterfinals. That wasn’t the case Saturday against fourth-seeded Velva-Drake-Anamoose.
The Aggies jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top half of the first inning, but the Watford City bats took center stage after that. Four runs in the first, two in the second and five in the third opened up a towering 11-3 lead for the tournament’s top seed, lifting the Wolves to their first-ever appearance in the state title game.
V-D-A coach Matt Weidler could do nothing but tip his cap after the game. The Aggies committed no errors, and senior starter Brad Dean threw strikes during his three innings on the mound.
“Brad threw strikes, and that’s what we asked him to do,” Weidler said. “Give all the credit to them. That’s a good baseball team.”
Watford City coach Justin Johnsrud was concerned with how the weather-inspired layover would affect his players, particularly after a quarterfinal contest in which the Wolves struggled to generate offense.
His nervousness was quickly eased after the opening three innings.
“You worry about some of the mental stuff or maybe the hitting, but the bats came alive today,” Johnsrud said. “It could have been any one of the teams in the tournament, the same thing could have happened and they win the game. Thankfully it was us today.”
Third place: Grafton 6, Velva-Drake-Anamoose 2,
Grafton capped its eighth straight state-tournament appearance with a 6-2 win over Velva-Drake-Anamoose in Saturday’s third-place game at Jack Brown Stadium.
The Spoilers didn’t waste any time against the Region 6 champions, scoring five runs in the first inning and another in the third to clinch the victory. Jaron Lunday was credited with the win after a three-inning, five-hit performance on the mound.
V-D-A junior lefty Brady Engebretson, who struck out five of the seven Watford City batters he faced in the semifinals, allowed three earned runs on six hits and four walks, striking out five. Three Aggie errors induced the other three Grafton runs.
Zak Hernandez was the catalyst for Grafton, kicking things off with a two-RBI double in the first. He finished 2-for-3 at the plate with a run scored.
Seventh place: Harvey-Wells County 10, No. 3 Thompson 2, 5 innings
Harvey-Wells County rebounded from a 0-2 start to the state tournament Saturday, claiming seventh place over Thompson in a 10-2 victory.
The Tommies were within striking distance of the lead before a seven-run fourth inning put the game at an unmanageable distance for the tournament’s No. 3 seed.
Four Hornets finished with multiple hits, including junior catcher Brady Bachmeier, who finished 3-for-3 with a double and two RBIs. Classmate Brock Hagemeister finished with a similar stat line, going 2-for-3 with a double, two RBIs and two runs scored.
Thompson’s shining moment came in the second inning with Brett Sutter-Hegg’s solo home run to right.
Fifth place: Kindred-Richland 3,
Midkota 2, 6 innings
Region 1 champion Kindred-Richland edged Midkota 3-2 in six innings. Junior Fletcher Andel claimed the win for the Vikings, allowing no hits or runs in a perfect final two innings, striking out four.