ALBURNETT — Alburnett has been a part of the Tri-Rivers Conference trio that has dominated small-school baseball and hogged higher spots in the Class 1A rankings.
The fifth-ranked Pirates have earned a spot among conference foes No. 2 Lisbon and No. 3 North Linn. They have done it with just two seniors on the roster and talented group of freshmen in the starting lineup.
“I’m really proud of our kids,” Alburnett Coach Ryan Stensland said. “We have those young guys, but at the end of the day we have veteran leadership, especially out of our juniors and seniors. We have some good chemistry with those guys.
“They get along pretty well and pull for each other. So far, we’ve hit on the right mix.”
Alburnett will attempt to move closer to its state tournament goals, hosting the 1A District 6 semifinals Thursday. The Pirates will face Janesville (12-10), following a semifinal between Hudson (18-9) and North Tama (16-9) at 5 p.m.
Alburnett owns a 32-6 record and hasn’t lost a game to a 1A team outside of top-ranked Mason City Newman, Lisbon and North Linn. The Pirates’ only other loss was to 3A Iowa City Liberty. The wins and losses haven’t been the focus. Sights have been set on the process of getting to Des Moines and playing for a state title.
“Everybody knows what that means,” Stensland said. “That has been the goal of our program and the guys have bought in for the most part. It’s been fun to watch them play.”
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Four freshmen rank among the team’s top eight in hits. Hunter Caves is second with 46, trailing only junior Keaton Parker by five. Reed Stallman is fourth with 35 and Shane Neighbor and Kale Rose are tied for seventh.
The youngsters have contributed on the mound as well, even though senior Ian Boline (8-1, 0.72 ERA) is the ace who pitched the postseason opener, and juniors Luke Smith and Parker are right behind with six victories apiece.
Freshmen have a combined 8-1 pitching record, including a 3-0 mark from Caden Evans and two wins each from Caves and Rose.
“The best part of watching this team to me is watching them grow,” Stensland said. “Along with that, there are growing pains, but it’s been a pleasure to watch these guys play.”
Boline and Alex Huber are the lone seniors. They have teamed with a solid group of juniors to provide leadership and help direct the underclassmen who have played together for a long time but had to adjust to the speed of the game and face older and more mature players.
Boline is hitting .353 with a .476 on-base average, ranking among the team’s leaders in most offensive categories. More importantly, Stensland described him as the “clubhouse” guy, praising him for helping the underclassmen perform.
“He’s a model of stability and consistency,” Stensland said of Boline. “He’s not a rah-rah guy. He’s a leader by example, but he will hold guys accountable.
“His work ethic is great.”
Stensland said Janesville is young as well. He expects to see a team that hits well, especially at the top of the order.
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“They are going to put the ball in play and they don’t beat themselves,” Stensland said. “We’re going to have to come out and play smart and aggressive baseball to come out with a win.”
In other area action, Lisbon (31-0) will try to remain the state’s lone unbeaten team, hosting Lone Tree (10-17) at 7 p.m. Highland (17-11), fresh off its big comeback victory in the district quarterfinals, faces HLV (19-6) in the early game at Lisbon.
North Linn will look to take another step back to the state tournament. The Lynx (37-3) host Bellevue Marquette in the nightcap at Troy Mills. They will follow the semifinal between Maquoketa Valley (17-14) and Calamus-Wheatland (19-13).
At Calmar, South Winneshiek (24-7) plays Turkey Valley (13-18) in a District 7 semifinal at 7 p.m. The early game is between Lansing Kee (17-11) and Wapsie Valley (14-12).
Iowa Mennonite (14-9) plays at No. 8 New London (21-2) in a District 10 semifinal.
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