Iowa City Liberty baseball coach Tom Cronk can see the progress.
The Lightning have doubled their victories from their inaugural season and posted a winning record in the Mississippi Valley Conference, which has had nine teams crack the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association rankings at least once this season.
“I think it was a good step this year,” Cronk said. “We competed. Teams would say we gave them a run in games.”
Liberty earned the second seed and the opportunity to host Cedar Rapids Washington in a Class 4A Substate 7 first-round game Friday at Mount Mercy’s Plaster Athletic Complex, starting at 7 p.m. The Lightning (22-17) have won seven of their last nine games and ended the regular season with two quality wins.
“Our kids have done a great job,” Cronk said. “They have really matured.”
Liberty still has a young roster with just one senior, but a strong junior class has closed the gap with more experienced opponents. The Lightning have gained confidence from being more seasoned at the varsity level.
“It’s been awesome,” Liberty junior Nolan Frey said. “Last year, we didn’t know what to expect. We just went out to have fun. This year, we set out with more goals.”
The Lightning enter the postseason with wins over fifth-ranked and returning state semifinalist Western Dubuque and Davenport Central. Cronk said both games had a playoff atmosphere and the Lightning showed their mettle, closing each one-run game with a double play.
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“We know we don’t have overpowering stuff,” Frey said. “We have a lot of guys that like playing together. That’s awesome.”
It hasn’t been easy at all. Liberty lost Tyler Dahm due to injury, limiting him to just 15 games after leading the team in hitting last season. Frey is hitting a team-best .426. Keian Secrist (.333), Cayden Duhaime (.328) and Sam Funke (.327 and five home runs) are among Lightning leaders. Frey also has a 4-2 record on the mound and is tied with Secrist with nine starts.
“I couldn’t be prouder how we’ve come together,” Cronk said. “Young kids also stepped up.”
Mount Mercy has served as a home away from home for the Lightning as well. Without Liberty’s baseball field ready, it has played its home games at Mount Mercy. Friendly crowds have made it feel like home.
“Our community is fantastic and we are in a baseball community,” Cronk said. “Our family and friends are very supportive and have done a really good job about making the long drive.”
Washington (12-27) is a dangerous opponent. The Warriors have talented players who were part of an impressive run to the 4A state final last season.
“Washington is scary,” Cronk said. “It’s going to be a good test. Hopefully, we’ll be ready to go.
“I feel like we’re in a good place ... it will be a heck of a game.”
In other 4A contests, Linn-Mar and Iowa City West are top seeds. The Lions host Bettendorf. The Trojans have Muscatine at home. Cedar Rapids Prairie hosts North Scott and Burlington travels to Mercer Park to play Iowa City High. Western Dubuque faces Waterloo East at Farley Park.
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Cedar Rapids Jefferson heads to Pleasant Valley and Cedar Rapids Kennedy takes on Southeast Polk in Runnells.
Top-ranked Cedar Rapids Xavier and No. 5 Marion host 3A district semifinals. The Saints will play Iowa Falls-Alden after a game between Decorah and Center Point-Urbana at Ken Charipar Field.
Marion plays Newton, following a semifinal between South Tama and Bondurant-Farrar.
Friday's area Class 4A substate quarterfinals
All games 7 p.m.
Cedar Rapids Kennedy vs. Southeast Polk
Waterloo West at Ankeny Centennial
Cedar Falls at Marshalltown
Waterloo East at Western Dubuque
Davenport North vs. Dubuque Hempstead, at Petrakis Park
Dubuque Senior at Davenport Central
Muscatine at Iowa City West
North Scott at Cedar Rapids Prairie
Clinton at Davenport West
Bettendorf at Linn-Mar
Burlington at Iowa City High
Cedar Rapids Jefferson at Pleasant Valley
Cedar Rapids Washington vs. Iowa City Liberty, at Mount Mercy’s Plaster Athletic Complex
Ames at West Des Moines Dowling
West Des Moines Valley at Ottumwa
Friday's area Class 3A district semifinals
At Cedar Rapids Xavier
Center Point-Urbana vs. Decorah, 5 p.m.
Iowa Falls-Alden vs. Cedar Rapids Xavier, 7 p.m.
Independence at West Delaware, 5 p.m.
Anamosa vs. DeWitt Central, 7 p.m.
Vinton-Shellsburg vs. Dubuque Wahlert, 5 p.m.
Benton Community vs. Maquoketa, 7 p.m.
Davenport Assumption vs. Keokuk, 5 p.m.
Mount Vernon vs. Washington, 7 p.m.
Clear Creek Amana vs. Mount Pleasant, 5 p.m.
Fort Madison vs. Fairfield, 7 p.m.
Bondurant-Farrar vs. South Tama, 5 p.m.
Newton vs. Marion, 7 p.m.
Solon vs. Pella, 5 p.m.
Nevada vs. Oskaloosa, 7 p.m.