116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Independence had every excuse to fold.
The ninth-ranked Mustangs were one out away from putting No. 5 Cedar Rapids Xavier away in Wednesday night's Class 3A Substate 6 final at Ken Chairpar Field, only to see Andrew Hamlett come through with a two-out, two-run triple to tie the score in the bottom of the seventh.
Indee got out of the inning, then scored what proved to be the winning run in the top of the eighth on a Xavier throwing error. The Saints had a threat going in the bottom of the eighth, but reliever Keegan Palmer got Preston Lang to ground into a bases-loaded, 4-6-3 double play to end the game, giving the Mustangs a 5-4 win and a state baseball tournament berth for the first time since 2010.
Coach Matt Miller's team (29-11) will play next Monday in the 3A quarterfinals at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City against an opponent to be determined.
Xavier, a state qualifier last season, closes its season at 28-12.
Miller said his team has been able to adjust all season, battling through a variety of issues, including a self-admitted coaching mistake in the seventh inning when Xavier tied the score. With a runner on second and two outs, Miller had Saints leadoff hitter Alex Neal intentionally walked, which led to Hamlett's tying hit.
“This is a group that is calm,” Miller said. “The boys had to overcome some adversity when their coach made a mistake with an intentional walk. They overcame that and I'm really proud of them.”
Xavier took an early 1-0 lead and Neal was in control on the mound until the third. With two outs and a runner at first, Mustangs senior catcher Keegan Schmitt bounced a hopper to third and beat it out for an infield single. An all-stater last season, Schmitt has been battling leg issues all season and running has been a struggle.
“It's been tough,” Schmitt said. “It's been a lingering injury but I knew these guys have pushed so hard for it and I wanted to do what I could to get there.”
The hustle paid off when freshman Sam Hamilton came to the plate and powered his first home run of the season over the right-field fence to give the Mustangs a 3-1 lead.
“He hit one about 400 feet in practice the other day,” Miller said. “He's been hitting the ball hard, but that one was definitely a big one.”
Mustangs starting pitcher Korver Hupke, who used nearly all of his 110 pitches and gave up the tying hit to Hamlett in the seventh, was excited to have his freshman teammate come through.
“Once I get a lead, I'm much more comfortable on the mound,” he said. “Once he hit that, I was riding the highs.
“I was pitching to contact. When I gave up the (tying hit) I hung my head for a minute, but I got right back in it because the game wasn't over.”
Schmitt's RBI single in the sixth gave the Mustangs a 4-1 lead. Xavier got one in its half of the sixth on a Caleb Even RBI single and tied things on Hamlett's triple.
However, it will be the eighth inning that will haunt the Saints as uncharacteristic mistakes proved costly.
“We had a couple of once-in-a-season type plays happen,” said Xavier Coach Dan Halter. “Credit to them, they did what they had to do. We just had some crazy things happen to us tonight.”