INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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DES MOINES — Cedar Rapids Prairie’s mantra all season has been #finish.
They have talked about it and even plastered it on a team poster.
The Hawks finished an impressive journey that saw them start the season unranked by coaches and end with their first state title.
Top-seeded Prairie erupted for nine runs in two middle innings, leading to a 12-3 victory over second-seeded Iowa City West in the Class 4A state championship Saturday night at Principal Park.
The Hawks (38-6) had only made one previous trip and posted two one-run victories before their outburst in the final.
“It was a huge celebration and that’s what we were looking forward to do at the beginning of the season,” Prairie senior Cal Clark said. “It was great to come down here and finish off a state tournament and give Prairie its first state title.”
Second-year head coach Todd Rima met with the team when he took over the program. He said they dedicated themselves to his philosophy and played a specific way together. They reaped the rewards, setting a program record in wins each of the last two seasons and two straight Mississippi Valley Conference divisional titles, in addition to state gold.
“They did it,” said Rima, who is also the head coach at Kirkwood Community College. “For them to accomplish it, I know everybody talks about how great their kids are, but this group of kids deserves it more than any group I’ve been around. They’re special.”
West (35-7) owned a 3-1 lead when Prairie stepped to the plate in the fourth. The rally started with two walks and the Hawks’ No. 9 batter Levi Usher batting with two out. Usher hit a slicing ball to left field that landed beyond the glove of a diving Dane Randall for an opposite field double. A courtesy runner and designated hitter Alex Mixon trucked around to score, tying the game.
Blake Viall followed with a bloop single to left that chased in Usher, putting the Hawks up, 4-3. Prairie was on its way of proving preseason voters wrong and completing its title mission.
“I think it shows a lot of character,” Rima said. “I think you saw a group of guys that when we got down they stayed composed, played with discipline and didn’t panic. It got us through.”
The Hawks pulled away in the following frame. They tallied six runs, sending 10 batters to the plate, including Alex Mixon who hit a two-run double that bounced over third base, bringing in Cooper Reittinger and courtesy runner Matt Lorenz. Usher drove in another run with a ball off the glove of a drawn-in second baseman.
Usher led the Hawks with three RBIs.
“For Levi, as a sophomore, who has been struggling a little bit to come up with two of the biggest hits in the game,” Rima said, “I’m just proud of that kid.”
Viall added a sacrifice fly and Cal Clark closed it with an RBI single. Clark finished with three hits and two RBIs, while Mixon added two and two RBIs.
“Mixon was great all week,” Rima said. “He was unbelievable. He picked us up. His play was outstanding in the DH spot.”
The teams traded runs in the opening innings. Prairie opened the scoring in the first. Viall reached on a throwing error, making his way to second. The Hawks executed a perfect run-and-hit when Clark smacked a single to left field, driving in Viall.
West answered in the second. Logan Sims singled to right with two outs. The throw home was on the first base slide, which allowed Nate Disterhoft to slide in just ahead of the diving tag of catcher Nic Mougin.
The Trojans took their first lead in the third. Oliver Martin and Spencer Wiskus had consecutive one-out singles. Jason Strunk walked to load the bases. Disterhoft was on the end of a run-scoring hit, driving in Martin and Wiskus with an opposite-field single to left, taking a 3-1 edge.
Martin, Wiskus and Sims led West with two hits apiece.
The Trojans made three errors and surrendered 10 hits. They also left nearly double the runners on base, including two in the first, second, fourth, sixth and seventh innings. West ran into a couple outs on the bases, having a runner thrown out at the plate by Viall to end the top of the fourth.
“We left 11 guys on base (and) defensively we made some mistakes, pitching, we just didn’t play very well,” West Coach Charlie Stumpff said. “Give Prairie credit, we had a chance to knock it open and they got big outs.
“We left guys at second and third a couple different times. You give them that many chances and they came through.”
Prairie pieced together a staff. Starter Tyler Nunemaker allowed one run in the first two innings. Cooper Reittinger gave up two runs before ace Darren Kilpatrick entered the game in the fifth. Kilpatrick threw three innings of scoreless relief, retiring West in order in the fifth and getting a 1-2-3 double play to end a threat in the sixth inning.
Rima elected not to start Kilpatrick. He said he didn’t feel comfortable bringing him back after throwing in Wednesday’s quarterfinal victory over Davenport West. Nunemaker and Reittinger were able to get key outs and the plan worked well when the Hawks got a lead with three innings left.
“We wanted to shorten the game,” Rima said. “We thought if we could get it through the fourth or fifth (and) we’re in the ballgame then it’s going to be his game.
“Once we got the lead and the ball in Darren’s hands we felt we had an advantage because we had our guy on the mound with the lead.”
Prairie is the Metro’s first 4A state baseball champion since Cedar Rapids Kennedy in 2010. The Hawks avenged last season’s substate final loss to the Trojans.
“At the beginning of January, when we’re in the gym working, and Coach Rima was telling us ‘finish’ after what happened last year,” Reittinger said. “To come down here and do what we did was pretty awesome.”
The Trojans earned their third straight state runner-up finish. They have reached the finals five times since 2009. Stumpff said there is solace with another finals appearance, even though it was tough to come up short again.
“We do everything to put us in position,” Stumpff said. “They’re doing good stuff. Hell, I’m going to celebrate the heck out of it. It’s tough but it’s better than not being here, I know that.”
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