Upset-minded Pioneers lose heartbreaker to defending champs
In a game of multiple scoring spurts, second-seeded Cherokee put together the final rally with six runs in the sixth inning to deny seventh-seeded Okoboji a stunning upset.
The Pioneers looked to play the role of spoiler for five and a half innings, jumping out to a 3-0 advantage in the third and taking a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning. Defending state champion and top-ranked Cherokee shifted the momentum back into their favor - scoring six runs in their second to last at-bat - to defeat the Pioneers 7-3 in a quarterfinal matchup at the Class 2A state baseball tournament Saturday at Principal Park in Des Moines.
"I don't doubt our kids because they weren't intimidated by a team like this," said Okoboji baseball coach Rory Marra. "Coming into a game like this, it doesn't matter what you do all year long. Both teams come in with a zero and zero record and anything can happen. We battled and battled, but Cherokee is such a great team. We came so close to winning a game not many thought that we had much of a chance of winning."
The Pioneers rode the right arm of sophomore hurler Ray Zalabowski to a 3-1 lead through five innings after breaking out offensively for three runs in the top of the third.
But the Braves, who were batting .360 as a team entering the game, fought back from the two-run deficit with six runs on three hits and two errors in the climactic sixth frame.
"They're good hitters. They made Ray throw pitches and he knew it. I think he was about shot out there. Ray came into the dugout after the third and fourth and said that I'm wearing down,'" said Marra. "But I can't say enough about this team, they were leading the No. 1 team in the state in the sixth inning."
The Pioneers set the tone with the first three runs of the game in the third. After a pair of errors by Cherokee starter Kyle Ruehle put runners on second and third, the Pioneers started some two-out magic with clutch hits from Blake Kliegl and Zalabowski. Kliegl scorched a two-run double off the wall to bring home Ethan Johnson and Kevin James.
"Ruehle left a hanging curve up and I drove right through it," exclaimed Okoboji junior slugger Blake Kliegl, who finished 2-for-3 with a double, a run scored and two runs batted in. "It was probably the best feeling of my life so far."
Zalabowski then lined an RBI single into center to score Kliegl. The Pioneers knocked out Ruehle in the third, but hard throwing reliever Matt Koch struck out Matt Tschetter to end the threat.
Koch allowed just one hit in the final four and 1/3 innings, stifling an Okoboji offense that came into the game batting .345 and touched Ruehle for three runs on four hits.
"Koch throws hard and you have to make a decision to swing right when it leaves his hand. It's a legit 90," Marra said.
"They both had great velocity," Kliegl added. "We were a little afraid of Koch because of his name and you can't do that because it's just a high school baseball game."
Zalabowski stymied the Brave bats for five and 1/3 innings, and for awhile it looked like three runs is all the support he would need. He allowed only one hit, struck out four and walked three while inducing eight fly outs and three ground outs, but was forced out of the game after allowing two of the three batters he faced to reach in the bottom of the sixth.
Both Cherokee batters eventually came around to score unearned runs. Zalabowski also gave up one run in the fourth after Cody Ege scampered home for a run on a passed ball.
"My game plan was to get up on guys, so I could use my changeup. Execution is key and if you don't execute, you're not going to win many games," said Zalabowski. " But Cherokee proved why they're No. 1 in the state. They battled hard and had good at-bats."
In the sixth, Koch was hit by a pitch and moved to third on a throwing error to start the Braves rally. Mark Johnson sent a ball into the gap in right-center that Taylor Boeckholt looked to have a glove on, but dropped for a three-base error. After Ege walked and stole second, Ruehle connected on a two-RBI single off Okoboji reliever Lucas Budrow to give Cherokee a 4-3 edge. Tim Jones followed with an RBI base hit. Then, after another error, Scott Brown connected on a two-run single to make the score 7-3.
"We played really well for five innings, then we didn't see the ball very well and our confidence seemed to go down," said Kliegl.
Koch struck out two and induced a pop out in the seventh to earn the victory on the mound.
The Pioneers roughed up Ruehle for three runs - zero earned on four hits in two and 2/3 innings of work.
"We figured that was who they were going to pitch and we knew that we could come in and hit Ruehle," he said. "The middle guys have done that all year. Blake's was a shot (in the third). That was a big hit that definitely woke them up a little too."
Budrow suffered the loss for the Pioneers after giving up four runs - two earned on three hits while striking out one and walking one.
Zalabowski took the no decision, giving up three runs - none earned on just one hit.
"It's been an amazing feeling that will never get old," said Zalabowski about the opportunity to pitch at Principal Park, home of the triple-A Iowa Cubs. "I wasn't nervous, I just knew I needed to get up on hitters and keep them off-balance."
Okoboji had five hits compared to only four for Cherokee. Kliegl led the way with a single and a double. Zalabowski was 1-for-3 with an RBI. Tschetter and Max Burgeson each finished 1-for-3.
The Pioneers lose four seniors from a team that finished 22-10 overall.
"The four seniors gave us us great leadership. They're going to fight more than anybody because it's their last time out and I can't say enough about them. They're a great group of kids from great families. They meant a lot to building up our program to the next level at Okoboji," Marra said.
Okoboji returns a talented core of players headlined by sophomore Ray Zalabowski, junior Blake Kliegl and junior Max Burgeson, who combined to bat .476 with 146 hits and 21 home runs on the year.
The Braves moved to 29-1 with the win, and take a 23-game winning streak into a semifinal game against third-seeded Solon tomorrow afternoon starting at 2 p.m.