"We came together in the last two weeks and fought tooth and nail the whole state tournament. I couldn't ask for anything else. And the kids are starting to see the rewards."
That's what Wood River American Legion baseball coach Matt Nelson said Monday morning at Hailey's Founders Field after his determined squad captured third place in the State "A" tournament for 16-19 year-old ballplayers.
Wood River (24-20, 6-3 in post-season tournaments) won three games and lost twice in the eight-team State "A" tournament staged for the first time in Hailey due to the hard work of the Wood River Baseball and Softball Association committee.
The only losses for Wood River came Saturday by a 10-3 score to eventual state champion Bear Lake, and on Monday to defending state champion and eventual second-place Mountain Home by a 5-0 count.
Such a finish was unexpected since Wood River (11-24 last summer) didn't even qualify for its own district tournament in 2006 before making a big move up the ladder in 2007. With only two seniors Wood River played all the way to the final day of the baseball season.
Wood River, seeded seventh in its 12-team state-qualifying district tourney before finishing second July 28 in Pocatello, won three tough games at state.
The home team beat the Emmett Blue Devils 5-3, slipped past the Centennial Cannons 15-14 in a hair-raising marathon Sunday, then sent the Lewiston Cubs packing 7-2.
Leading the way were shortstop and #2 hitter Michale Brunker (13-for-19, 6 doubles, 7 runs, 6 RBI, .684), second baseman Tyler Israel (8-for-17, 4 doubles, .471) along with workhorse righty pitchers Erik Jacobson and Pat Patterson.
But Wood River wasn't the only underdog story at state.
Bear Lake of Montpelier, the two-time defending State 3A high school baseball champion, went 4-0 and outscored opponents 47-17 including 7-6 and 10-7 triumphs over reigning State "A" king Mountain Home.
It was Bear Lake's first visit to the State "A" tournament and the small 3A school (393 students according to IDHSAA state figures) from southeastern Idaho made the most of it against bigger schools (WR 800, Emmett 866, Mountain Home 1,108, Blackfoot 1,117, Lewiston 1,539 and Centennial 1,882).
Coach Craig Culver's Bears relied on three pitchers named Crane—Cameron, Nate and Jordan—and built big leads over Mountain Home in each of two clashes between two teams that were far and away the best clubs in the eight-team field.
In Sunday's semi-final, Bear Lake got RBI singles from sturdy catcher Rob Smith, Corby Dixon, Cameron Crane and Bailey Thomas during a five-run third giving the Bears a 7-1 lead. Winning pitcher Jordan Crane escaped a one-out bases loaded jam in the sixth and pitched a 1-2-3 seventh.
Monday's championship game was very similar in that Bear Lake jumped ahead 3-0 in the first, 6-1 in the third and 9-1 in the fourth. Mountain Home reached Bears starter Cameron Crane for six runs in the sixth but reliever Keith Cook doused the fire for the 10-7 clincher.
Culver's team had earned its way to state with a 4-0 shutout of #2-seeded Buhl and an 8-7 eight-inning win over top-seeded district favorite Jerome July 28 in Pocatello. Now, the Bears have qualified for the Legion Regional "A" tourney Aug. 16-20 in Anchorage, Alaska where they'll try to make the Aug. 24-28 World Series of American Legion ball.
American Legion baseball is the oldest and largest nationwide teenage baseball program in America, dating back to 1925. The first national championship was held in 1926.
Wood River's state games
Wood River started its state quest with a 5-3 victory over Emmett Friday as Jacobson (90 pitches, 5 1/3 innings, 2 runs, 5 hits, 6 K) and reliever Danny Kramer (1 2/3 innings, 2 hits, no earned runs) combined for the hard-fought triumph.
The home team (7 hits) got all its runs in a five-run, 11-batter fifth as Israel (2 hits) drilled an RBI single, Drew Anderson (2 hits, 8-for-20 for .400 state) singled into the sun and Brunker (2 hits) blooped an RBI single into right field.
Free passes hurt Wood River all through the tournament and the next game against Bear Lake was a good example. Wolverine pitchers issued 24 walks and hit nine batters over five games. Of those 33 free passes, 12 of the runners scored. The Wolverines (18 errors in 5 games) also need to tighten up.
Bear Lake, sparked at the plate by winning pitcher Nate Crane (3 hits) and catcher Rob Smith (3-for-3, 4 RBI) built a 7-1 lead after two frames and coasted to the 10-3 win. Each team had eight hits. Brunker (2 runs), Kenny Cardona and Patterson had two hits each.
The little things made a big difference in the game.
In the Bear Lake first, Wood River starting pitcher Kenny Cardona got the first two outs then Bears third sacker Keith Cook blasted a long triple to the right field fence. Clean-up hitter Nate Crane came up and Cardona enticed a ground ball, but Crane beat the throw with a head-first slide into first.
Cardona proceeded to walk the next two batters and Bear Lake ended up scoring three.
In the visitor second, leadoff hitter Cameron Crane tripled to right and scored on a wild pitch. Cardona and relief pitcher Patterson walked the next three batters and Bear Lake catcher Smith, with two outs, cranked a two-run double to left for a 6-1 Bears cushion.
The game featured some fine defensive plays—Kramer's charge of a grounder and Jacobson's nasty stretch at first base; Kyle Rose making a long run to flag down a foul ball in right; Israel ranging far to his right and throwing out a Bears runner; and catcher Cardona chasing down a wild pitch and throwing out a runner at the plate with a quick, blind flip.
Also, Bear Lake center fielder Trent Alleman made an outstanding going-way-back catch on Greg Wakefield's long drive in the second when Wood River threatened to rally with one out. Most of the rest of Wood River outs were made on grounders in the infield.
The Centennial marathon
Wood River's next loser-out game against Centennial—three hours and 10 minutes filled with 29 runs, 27 hits, 10 errors, 337 pitches and sheer terror for fans—had its share of highlights and low-lights, coach Nelson said afterward.
The highlights: Wood River jumping out to an 11-2 lead; Brunker's lights-out hitting (5-for-5, 3 doubles, 3 runs) along with Sean Bunce (3-for-3, 3 RBI) and Israel (3 hits, 2 doubles); and a gritty 123-pitch pitching job by Trent Seamons (4 1/3 innings, 6 hits, 5 earned runs).
Low-lights included Wood River (despite out-hitting Centennial 16-11) nearly losing the game because of nine fielding errors and 10 free passes. Centennial rallied into a 14-12 lead in the seventh before Wood River scored three runs in the home half for the 15-14 victory.
Wood River opened the game with six runs on five hits.
Drew Anderson legged out an infield single and Brunker doubled him to third. Jacobson (2 hits) drilled a two-run single, Patterson followed with an RBI single to center and Bunce delivered a two-run double.
In the second, Centennial center fielder Koji Moy made the first of two incredible diving catches to stop a Hailey threat—but Wood River scored five more runs in the third on two-out doubles off the bats of Bunce, Israel and Brunker plus a Seamons RBI single.
Wood River, leading 11-2, started getting sloppy on defense and unfocused on the mound in the middle frames.
The home team made seven errors in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings and issued seven free passes. Centennial scored 10 runs in those three frames and added two more for a 14-12 lead in the seventh. Jake Petersen (2 hits, 3 runs) and catcher Ryan Abel (3 runs) had one-out singles and scored the go-ahead run when Hailey misplayed a bunt by Moy (3 hits, 2 runs).
But two bad hops helped Wood River ultimately win the back-and-forth game.
Outfielder Bunce, leading off the home seventh, reached base on a bad-hop single. Israel ripped a hanging curve ball off the right field fence for a run-scoring double. With one out, Brunker moved Israel to third with a perfect drag bunt single. Seamons brought Israel home with the tying run on a perfectly executed squeeze bunt for a 14-14 game. Then the Cannons walked the bases full.
Cardona, one of two seniors along with Anderson, came to the plate and rapped a tough bouncing ball that handcuffed the Centennial shortstop for the only Cannons error of the game—and Brunker scampered home with the game winner.
"Kenny and Drew worked very hard and showed outstanding senior leadership all summer," Nelson said.
Three Wood River pitchers, Seamons, Kramer and winner Jacobson (5-2) ended up throwing 196 pitches compared to 141 for Centennial's four hurlers.
Patterson, nursing a tender ankle, came out against the Lewiston Cubs in the next loser-out game Sunday and threw a whale of a game. He allowed only six hits and two runs in a complete-game victory. Wood River out-hit Lewiston 13-6 and prevailed 7-2.
Erasing a 1-0 deficit, Wood River scored four times in the third. Brunker (3 hits, 2 doubles) delivered a one-out double, Seamons (2 hits) singled, Kramer reached on an error then Jacobson and Cardona (2 hits) singled home runs.
Brunker's two-out RBI single made it 5-1 in the fourth after a leadoff single by Rose (2 hits). In the sixth, Wood River tacked on two runs on a two-out Israel (2 runs) single followed by RBI doubles off the bats of Anderson and Brunker.
Having nailed down at least a podium finish, Wood River couldn't get its bats going Monday against the left-handed junk-ball throwing of Mountain Home's Jake Hiler (120 pitches, 2 BB, 8 K). Throwing predominantly soft curve balls and getting ahead on counts, Hiler tossed a seven-hit complete-game shutout to oust Hailey.
Hiler (2 hits, 3 RBI) was also the big gun at the plate for the Royals. Drew Anderson had three singles for Wood River and made a nice catch in left field. Jacobson threw six solid innings and held the Royals hitless for the final four, but he issued six free passes and M scored on three of them.
Nelson said, "Mountain Home knows how to win. It was a good lesson for our kids, part of the growing process."
With the summer done, coach Nelson looked ahead to a bright future. He said, "We'll have six juniors coming back as seniors and an outstanding junior class coming in. Our big, solid core of pitchers is back. And we have great guys coming up in Babe Ruth. I'm looking forward to next season."
STATE LEGION NOTES--Making only its fourth appearance at the State "A" Legion tournament, Wood River posted its best-ever finish (3rd place) and best record (3-2). The Wolverines were 0-2 at Meridian in 1993, 1-2 at Lewiston in 1994 and 1-2 at Lewiston again in 2000. They've lost at state to Mountain Home three times now—by scores of 11-9, 1-0 and 5-0....Coach Matt Nelson (72-59, 22-12 in Legion tournaments) has coached Wood River Legion teams for three years and has made two trips to state.
Perfect weather greeted tournament teams over four days with the exception of 30-minute rainstorms on Friday and Saturday. In Friday's opening-round games, Blackfoot beat Centennial 7-3, Mountain Home took care of Orofino 3-1, Bear Lake trounced Lewiston 20-1 in five innings and Wood River nipped Emmett 5-3.
On Saturday, Lewiston stayed alive 11-4 over Emmett and Centennial sent Orofino home 4-3 in the loser bracket, while Mountain Home beat Blackfoot 8-3 and Bear Lake defeated Wood River 10-3.
Sunday's games had Lewiston ousting Blackfoot 7-6, Wood River winning 15-14 over Centennial and 7-2 over Lewiston, and Bear Lake beating Mountain Home 7-6 in the last game of the evening. On Monday, Mountain Home blanked Wood River 5-0 and Bear Lake claimed the title 10-7 over Mountain Home.
State Legion officials removed a home plate umpire from further competition after he used profanity against tournament rules during Sunday night's Bear Lake-Mountain Home game. Burley's Craig Mills, officiating the State "AA" tournament in Lewiston, responded to a request to fill in for the ejected umpire and drove through the night to make Monday's 10 a.m. game between Wood River and Mountain Home.....Recent Area C "A" champion Blackfoot had a disappointing state tournament. The Broncos opened with a 7-3 win over Centennial then went home early with 8-3 and 7-6 losses to Mountain Home and Lewiston.
Bear Lake, the two-time defending State 3A baseball king, went 4-0 against Wood River this season including high school play. The Bears have now won nine straight games over Wood River dating to 2005......Out of its 15 doubleheaders this season, Wood River won six, split six and lost three.....Wood River (12-9 home, 12-11 away) scored 312 runs for a 7.3 runs average and yielded 269 runs (6.3).....In comparison, last summer Wood River was 11-24, the 12th seed in the league and didn't make the Area C "A" tourney. Last year's runs/runs against were 5.9/8.3......Final pitching records for 2007 were Pat Patterson 9-6, Erik Jacobson 5-2, Michale Brunker 2-1, Trent Seamons 4-3, Kenny Cardona 1-3, Greg Wakefield 2-0, Tyler Israel 0-1, Jackson Morgus 0-1 and Danny Kramer 0-3.....
In five games at state, Wood River (51-for-147) batted .347 and was the second-leading offensive team with 30 runs in five games, compared to Mountain Home's 29. All but 13 of the 51 hits went for singles. The home team had 13 doubles but no triples or homers.....At state, Jacobson (2-1) threw 205 pitches in 12 1/3 innings, Patterson (1-0) 190 pitches in 11 frames, Kramer 125 pitches in 6 innings, Seamons 123 pitches in 4 1/3 innings and Cardona (0-1) 48 pitches in 1 1/3 innings.