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CEDAR RAPIDS — Eric Willis spent most of his life in Waverly and grew up around the Wartburg campus.
He followed his dad, Wartburg Athletics Director and head football coach Rick Willis, to football games growing up and watched as his older brother, Tyler, earned all-conference honors as an infielder for the Knights.
The younger Willis took a different route, playing at Kirkwood Community College and then for NCAA Division I program St. Bonaventure before his path led back home.
The junior has returned to lead Wartburg in hitting, contributing a home run and double in the top-seeded Knights’ 9-6 victory over No. 3 Buena Vista in the winner’s bracket final of the Iowa Conference baseball tournament Friday at Memorial Stadium.
Willis said his hometown was a better fit and he is making the most of the chance to help Wartburg win its 10th conference tournament championship.
“It just verifies my decision,” said Willis, starting at second base like his older brother. “It makes me glad that I actually made the decision to come back. We’re having a great season overall as a team, winning a lot of games.
“It’s nice to be part of a championship-level team at Wartburg.”
Wartburg Coach Joel Holst said he strongly recruited Willis, but scholarship offers rolled in after his first-team all-state season as a senior at Waverly-Shell Rock. Holst first heard of the possible transfer to Wartburg from Rick Willis and was happy to add him to the roster.
“He has athleticism, putting pressure on people,” Holst said. “He has the knack of coming up with the key hit, too, even though he’s a lead off guy. He kind of sets the table. When he gets on good things happen for us.”
Willis has been hot for the Knights this postseason. He is 6-for-10 in the first two games, hitting a leadoff home run in the third to tie the game, 2-2. He added a double in the fourth.
Willis is hitting .403 with nine more hits than any teammate.
“I’ve been sticking to my approach,” Willis said. “Also, the time I’ve spent in the cages, doing stuff by myself sometimes. Late at night and early in the morning. Just doing my own stuff has helped me a lot, staying consistent with that, and doing it every single day.”
His double came in the middle of a key three-run fourth. The Knights took advantage of control problems from Beaver starter Keenan Jones, who hit two batters with two out. Blake Mahoney’s infield single with the bases loaded resulted in two Buena Vista throwing errors that cleared the bases and gave Wartburg a 6-2 lead.
“(Holst) has just been telling us if we put the ball in play and we hustle around the bases, good things are going to happen for us,” Willis said. “People are going to make mistakes. It’s really paid off.”
Cody Hyler led the Knights with three hits. Wartburg’s Clay Henning and Mike Brown each had two hits, while Jacob Thumann had a two-run home run for the second straight game.
Outside of the ninth, when Buena Vista drew a walk and two hit batsmen for a four-run frame, the Knights played well in each aspect, including an inning-ending double play to end a Beavers rally in the seventh.
“One of the phases of the game may disappear at times, but for the most part, if one is gone another picks it up a little bit,” Holst said. “That’s one of our strengths.
“We’ve talked about the fact this is one of our better defensive teams. That’s a huge deal. We’ve been pitching real well and offensively, we can put it together. We’re hoping we’re pretty balanced (Saturday), because that is what it will take.”
Wartburg (30-12) will face either Buena Vista (26-16) or Coe (23-17). The Knights need just one victory to sweep regular-season and conference tournament titles.
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