Prep Baseball

Alburnett uses walk-off squeeze play to reach state baseball championship game

Pirates will face Mason City Newman for 1A title after Shane Neighbor's heroics

DES MOINES — Gutsy call. Perfect execution. Alburnett parlayed both into one memorable celebration.

Shane Neighbor put down a well-placed bases-loaded squeeze bunt as Austin Huber raced home with the game-winning run in the bottom of the seventh, giving third-ranked Alburnett a 4-3 victory over No. 10 Remsen St. Mary’s in a Class 1A state baseball semifinal thriller at Principal Park.

“It was unbelievable,” Neighbor said. “I’ve never been in that big of a moment before. It’s cool that I could get it done for the team.”

Huber scored easily and the Pirates (34-5) advanced to their first finals appearance. They’ll face top-ranked Mason City Newman (37-3) on Saturday at 11 a.m.

This was Neighbor’s first chance to drive in a walk-off run since middle school.

“I’d say back in fifth or sixth grade,” Neighbor said. “We were at our state USSSA tournament and I hit one to right field to walk it off. It was a great feeling, but nothing compared to this.”

The Pirates and Hawks were deadlocked in a 3-3 game. Huber opened the final frame with a walk and Hawks ace Blaine Harpenau hit the 110-pitch limit, giving way to reliever Kyler Waldschmitt.

Reed Stallman smacked a single to center and Keaton Parker reached on an infield hit, loading the bases with none out.

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During the pitching change, Alburnett Coach Ryan Stensland mentioned the unconventional squeeze as a possibility. He let Luke Smith swing away and made the decision when Neighbor stepped to the plate with one out.

The play was risky with Waldschmitt in the stretch and the 0-1 fastball came in high and tight.

“I knew Shane could bunt the ball,” Stensland said. “He executes it pretty well in practice.

“He’s a big kid, but he is athletic. He’s got good hands.”

Parker said he looked at Stallman when the sign was given and knew they needed to reach the next base. Huber was excited and confident since Neighbor put a bunt down in the fourth.

“I saw him square around and got an absolutely perfect bunt down the third-base line,” Huber said. “I’m thinking about what I’m going to do to celebrate. Once he got it down I knew there was no way they were making a play on it.”

Huber was involved in a key play in the top of the seventh. St. Mary’s (27-8) had a runner in scoring position and one out. Harpenau lofted a fly to left center. Huber made a sliding catch and came up throwing to second to double off the runner, who had broken for third.

He continued the momentum, sparking the winning rally.

“I’ve been nervous this whole time,” Huber said. “I make that play and we go into the bottom of the seventh and my nerves are gone for the first time all game.

“I just went up there to do my job. My role all year is to find a way to get on.”

Teams exchanged goose eggs in the first four innings. The Hawks broke the scoreless game in the top of the fifth. Spencer Schorg, Harpenau and Waldschmitt notched consecutive RBUI singles for a 3-0 lead.

Alburnett has played from behind before, but Harpenau had only allowed six earned runs all season. The Pirates responded immediately with three in their half.

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Kale Rose led off with a single and Huber followed with one of his own. Stallman powered up for a triple to the right-field wall to cut the deficit to one.

“I had a long at-bat going on,” Stallman said. “He left me a high fastball and I just got to it. I took a two-strike approach and obviously it turned out good. I figured I should be able to go around the bases and get to third.”

Parker added a single to left to bring in Stallman and tie the score.

“(Rose) comes into that nine hole (and) is kind of a fire starter for us,” Stensland said. “We knew we had the middle of the order coming up.

“They’ve been resilient all year. They are learning to win and that’s what it took to get to this point.”

Parker said he popped a rib on the game’s first pitch and aggravated back pain that bothered him earlier in the season. He overcame the discomfort, tossing a complete game for his 13th win this season. Parker allowed three runs and scattered three hits.

Alburnett forced a rematch with two-time defending state champion Newman, which has won three of the last four 1A titles. Newman won the regular-season meeting, 9-2, at Mount Mercy on June 11. It was during a tough stretch in the schedule that tested the Pirates’ mettle.

“They are the program everyone strives to be and have a tremendous amount of respect for them,” Stensland said of Newman. “After playing them, we got exposed in a few areas offensively and on defense and have been working to make adjustments.”

The Pirates have enjoyed a banner school year, earning a runner-up finish in their first state basketball appearance and reaching their first state baseball championship game in just their second trip.

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“It shows we have really good leaders on our teams,” said Parker, praising the other classes. “We’re really good when we’re good together. Unfortunately, this is our last year together, but we’re going to go out with a bang.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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