116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CARROLL — A quick start. A late rally. An end of an era.
When Kingsley Pierson completed its comeback victory against North Linn, it marked the end of Austin Hilmer’s prep career and the conclusion of an eight-year stretch of a Hilmer leading the Lynx.
“The last five years have been a lot of fun,” said Hilmer, who started as an eighth-grader when his older brother, Jake, was a junior. “I’m going to miss representing North Linn.”
The fifth-seeded Panthers scored two runs after just three batters and rallied for five runs in the last two innings to knock off the No. 4-seed Lynx, 7-4, in the Class 1A state baseball quarterfinals Monday at Merchants Park.
The Lynx (31-3) took a 4-2 lead with two runs in the third and fourth innings, but couldn’t match the production in the sixth and seventh.
“Overall, I thought we played pretty well,” North Linn Coach Travis Griffith said. “It just seemed like we ran out of gas there at the end.”
Hilmer reached on a single in the third and scored North Linn’s first run. He made an indelible mark on the program, leading the Lynx in multiple offensive categories, rapping 57 hits and stealing 60 bases this season. His presence and competitive streak will be missed.
“They’re full of energy and great kids,” Griffith said of the Hilmers. “It’s not just on the field, but off the field. It’s going to be tough, but hopefully those characteristics of leadership has rubbed off on those other kids that hung out with them.”
Hilmer was part of four state tournament teams, including the 2019 runner-up. This trip was a little special, returning after a one-year hiatus. The ending wasn’t what the 2022 Gazette Male Athlete of the Year had hoped but it was better than a year ago.
“We’ve made it the norm to make it to state,” Hilmer said. “When we didn’t last year, it hurt. Getting here to state means a lot. It means something more than usual because we didn’t make it last year.”
The top of Kingsley-Pierson’s order did all the damage. Damon Schmid reached on an error to start the seventh and Conner Beelner added a base hit. An Evan Neumann sac bunt put both in scoring position for Malaki Christopherson. He jumped on a first-pitch curveball and drove it into the left-center gap, giving the Panthers a 6-4 lead.
“The pitcher was hanging me curveballs,” said Christopherson, who finished with three RBIs. “I saw the first one so I just swung for the fences.”
Miscues hurt as well.
“We made some uncharacteristic errors we don’t make,” Griffith said. “Both of those errors end up leading to big rallies for them. They were a better team today. We didn’t play our best baseball, but credit to them. They were better when they needed.”
In the sixth, Beelner reached on a walk to spark the Panthers. He moved to second and scored on a one-out single by Christopher. The Panthers loaded the bases with a walk and base hit, scoring the tying run on a Brandon Kron bunt and setting up the seventh.
The Lynx were lucky to remain tied. Center fielder Cael Bridgewater stole a possible bases-loaded hit, sprinting into left center and making a diving catch for the third out.
“It just stayed up in the air a lot longer than I thought,” Bridgewater said. “Our left fielder, Cole Griffith, was telling me I could do it. Go make a play.”
Schmid opened the game with an infield single on a chopper to second. Beelner followed with a double to left center to bring in Schmid. Neumann’s sacrifice fly brought in Beelner for a 2-0 lead.
Hilmer (8-2) retired nine straight batters and allowed three base runners in the middle innings. He didn’t have the same stuff after the fifth, lasting 6 1/3 innings.
“We had guys make plays behind me to keep it close,” Hilmer said. “Cael diving for that ball was big. If not, we wouldn’t have even been in it in the seventh.
“For the most part, we played a pretty clean ball game. They were hitting us. I didn’t have my pitches going as of late.”
North Linn got on the board in the third. Hilmer singled to center and stole second. Bridgewater reached on an error with both runners moving to second and third on a wild pitch. Freshman Mason Bechen delivered a two-run double to left center to tie the game.
Bechen also drew a bases loaded walk in the two-run fourth for North Linn’s last run. He had the Lynx’s only RBIs. He might inherit the leadership role.
“He doesn’t play like a freshman,” Griffith said. “He’s going to be a pretty special player. It was kind of passing of the torch, going from one great player to another one.
“I think Mason knows what he’s got and what he can do. He’s pretty sure of himself.”
Kingsley-Pierson (27-4) will advance to the semifinals Wednesday against the winner of top-seeded Remsen St. Mary’s and South Winneshiek.