Cedar Rapids Kennedy rallies for first-round victory over Linn-Mar

Church and Kalb deliver key RBI singles in decisive inning

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids Kennedy struggled to produce a key hit for most of its postseason opener.

The Cougars finally relied on a key figure on the team. No, it wasn’t “Esteban” the fluorescent green rally dragon (some called it a horse) that began to appear at the start of their current win steak.

Bryce Church and Parker Kalb had RBI singles in the bottom of sixth, leading Kennedy to a 3-1 victory over Linn-Mar in a Class 4A Substate 3 first-round game Friday night at Herkelman Field.

With Esteban joining the team on the top step of the dugout and just two at-bats remaining, the Cougars erased a one-run deficit with a three-run frame.

“We were starting to run out of outs,” Kennedy Coach Bret Hoyer said. “You start worrying a little bit, but these guys are pretty resilient and a very cohesive group. I had a lot of confidence that they would find a way.”

Kennedy (28-13) placed the leadoff batter on base in four of the first five innings. The spark came in the sixth with one out. Anthony Alepra reached on a base hit, bringing Church to the plate. After a stolen base, Church poked a base hit up the middle to tie the game.

Church said he has a specific routine before each at-bat, checking his signs, taking two deep breaths, picking out a point on his bat and deciding what he wants to do with the ball. He executed it perfectly for the last at-bat.

“I did,” Church said. “I just try to drive it right back at the pitcher.”

Church had the only Kennedy hits through the first four innings, finishing with a game-high three singles.

“I like quick pitchers and sidearm pitchers,” Church said. “It really helps out. When they just give it to you down the middle, you just have to hack at it as hard as you can.”

Kalb chased home Church with a single, giving the Cougars their first lead that they didn’t surrender.

“I had seen a couple pitches that I had liked,” Kalb said. “The third pitch I was just ready for it and I did what I could do, driving it right back up the middle.”

Kennedy’s Parker Cooley, who made a fine catch in shallow center to end the game, and Matt Berst added singles to close the scoring. Berst actually chased home Cooley for the insurance run.

They built momentum after stranding six runners the first five innings and eight overall.

“They try to string what we call quality at-bats together and squaring up pitches consistently,” Hoyer said. “Hits are going to come. Hits come in bunches at times.”

The Cougars are no strangers to comebacks. They have proved they are capable, including a 3-run bottom of the seventh in a nine-inning win over Pleasant Valley earlier this week.

“We just never go away,” Kalb said. “”It is something Coach Hoyer has built in us and that is part of the program. Everyone who has played here has gone through that.”

Tyler Dralle earned the win, throwing two scoreless innings of relief. Alepra started for the Cougars, allowing just three hits and one earned run.

As for Esteban, the toy was meant as a way to stir up excitement in the dugout, which had been lacking up until a loss to rival and Substate 3 top seed Cedar Rapids Jefferson. The Cougars have seven straight wins since he has appeared.

“We’re doing something right with it,” Kalb said with a laugh. “It’s a good-luck charm. It’s awesome.”

Kennedy will face Western Dubuque in the substate semifinal Monday at home. The Bobcats (26-12) dropped Iowa City High, 7-6, in eight innings. Hoyer said the Cougars have to play better, but they will take the same approach to the semifinal game. Their run-conjuring mascot will be there, too.

“We’re still going to play the game we have all year,” Church said. “We’re getting better.

“We’re just playing our best ball at the right time.”

Linn-Mar (18-22) battled the entire game and put themselves in position to win. The Lions took the lead in the second when Ben Diestler opened the second with a walk and courtesy runner Andrew Kraus scored on Rylan Lechner’s fielders choice.

Linn-Mar tried to answer in the seventh with a leadoff double by Reese Phillips, but he was left at third.

“I’m proud of the way they played,” Linn-Mar Coach Chad Lechner said. “That’s all you can ask for in a substate environment. Give yourself a shot. We had a chance.”

The Lions had a chance to break things open in the third, loading the bases with two outs. Alepra forced a pop fly to end the threat.

Linn-Mar remained in control thanks to the strong performance from starter Jake Brandt. He allowed just three hits until the decisive inning. He seemed to just run out of gas after his fourth strikeout that started the bottom of the sixth.

“He battled,” Lechner said. “He gave us a shot. He pitched his heart out.”

Lechner said the defense came a long way, making some very good plays, including a couple diving catches from center fielder Manny Jeffery. He said it was more of Kennedy winning the game than anything the Lions failed to do.

“The kids played a good baseball game,” Lechner said. “We didn’t beat ourselves. When that happens, you just tip your cap to the other team and focus on positives.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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