CEDAR RAPIDS — A green shirt hung on the railing of the third-base dugout.
As the University of Dubuque recorded the final out, it disappeared within the elated huddle of blue-and-white jerseys. The garment was an important part of the Spartans' accomplishment and a necessary inclusion to celebrate it.
The shirt had “All for Kalb” printed across the front, honoring the late 32-year-old Dubuque assistant baseball coach, who died of a rare form of liver cancer in February. This feat was big for the program and indicative of the perseverance the Spartans needed this season.
“It’s crazy to put it all into perspective, but it makes it that much sweeter,” Dubuque senior Dalton Garst said. “We know we have a coach up there, looking down on us, and there’s nobody that would enjoy this as much as he would. It’s awesome we are here and can enjoy it.”
The top-seeded Spartans erupted for 11 runs in their final three at-bats and defeated No. 2 seed Wartburg, 11-6, in the finals of the Iowa Conference tournament Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Dubuque captured its first IIAC baseball tournament title on the heels of the program’s first regular-season conference crown in 68 years of competition.
“I’m just so happy for these guys,” Dubuque Coach Paul Wyczawski said. “They battled all year long and really competed. It’s a close group of guys and I know we battled a little bit of adversity, losing my assistant coach Luke Kalb back in February. It’s just a neat way to honor him with great effort every day at the ballpark.”
Spartans senior outfielder Tyler Imrich said he heard the forecast predicted rain. He hinted that Kalb may have helped stave off the rain.
“I know he is up there guiding us, helping us,” Imrich said. “To come out and compete for him, it was just an amazing feeling. He was a great guy.”
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Dubuque (24-15) put itself in the catbird seat with a victory Friday over Wartburg in the winners' bracket final. The Spartans were in a position where they advanced to the final and an opponent had to beat them twice.
After an 8-4 come-from-behind victory over Coe, the Knights (26-13) earned another shot at Dubuque. Wartburg took a 4-0 lead. Zach Hovick’s RBI single scored Parker Ridge in the first. Manny Jeffery’s one-out hopper scored Ridge and JoJo McNair in the fifth and Eric Willis scored on a passed ball, following a leadoff double in the sixth.
Jeffery finished with three hits, giving him nine total during the three-day event.
Despite the deficit, the Spartans remained confident.
“There is no panic in this team,” Wyczawski said. “We’ve shown we can score some runs late in the game. It was so fun to see them keep their poise and be ready when the opportunity struck and we certainly did at the right time.”
The right time presented itself in the bottom of the sixth. Dubuque struggled against Wartburg starter Darren Kilpatrick through the first five innings, but took advantage of control problems, including a leadoff walk, a hit batsman and a couple singles in the three-run sixth.
Dubuque grabbed its first lead in the seventh on an RBI single by Kellen Mitchell. The Spartans broke open a tied game in the eighth, scoring six runs including five with two out.
“It was a great feeling to put some runs on the board,” Imrich said. “Got a lot of energy on the team. It was a great team effort.”
Jack Lasswell, Mitchell, Thomas Kempf, Jarad Clevenger, Will Doherty and Imrich each had two hits. Justin Jensen, Kempf, Clevenger and Doherty had two RBIs apiece.
The top four batters spurred the comeback, combining to reach base 9 of 11 at-bats and scoring eight runs.
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“It shows our resiliency,” said Garst, who went 3-for-3 and scored three times. “To get behind early, we knew we had good at-bats going and so we just wanted to put them together. Finally, we just broke through late in the game.
“It was staying within my approach as a hitter. I was seeing the ball well (Saturday). I knew if I got on base my teammates were going to drive me in, so I just tried to get on base for them.”
Dubuque has climbed the conference ranks, improving from 12-28 in 2015 and 19-23 two seasons ago. The title picture came into focus more than a year earlier when Wartburg clinched last year’s regular-season crown at their expense.
“We knew we were right there,” Garst said. “At that point, we knew we could come back and get it this year.”
Dubuque earned the IIAC’s automatic berth to an NCAA Division III regional. The Spartans are expected to play in the Central Region in Sauget, Ill., May 17-21. Wyczawski said they are excited to see the players reap the reward of their efforts.
“It really validates all the work and effort that has been put in by the players, various assistant coaches I’ve had in the last six years, as well as our administration,” Wyczawski said. “It just really means a lot, not only for my guys (and) my program, but for the school.”
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