CEDAR RAPIDS — When the Iowa high school baseball postseason assignments were released and a matchup between Linn-Mar and Iowa City West seemed imminent, West Activities Director Craig Huegel and his Linn-Mar counterpart Dave Brown started the wheels in motion.
They got the matchup they expected and the venue they wanted. Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids was secured, providing more space for social distancing and accommodating a larger playoff-game crowd during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It looked like we were going to play each other, so Huegel reached out,” West Coach Charlie Stumpff said. “Both expressed it would be better. We wouldn’t have to worry about limits.”
Third-seeded West and fourth-seeded Linn-Mar play a Class 4A Substate 6 first-round baseball game in the nightcap of a multi-class doubleheader at the minor league ballpark Friday at 8 p.m. Defending 3A state champion and fifth-ranked Cedar Rapids Xavier (13-4) plays Vinton-Shellsburg (0-19) in the opener at 5 p.m.
The Mississippi Valley Conference has limited attendance to three fans per player all season. For the postseason, athletes could have the chance to play in front of more people, and that might produce added excitement.
“Anyone who wants to come to the game can come,” Stumpff said. “It was better for our fans. It’s a neat environment. It’s a win-win.”
Xavier Coach Dan Halter said he jumped at the chance to move their home game to the stadium when offered by Saints AD Adam McDonnell. He echoed Stumpff’s sentiments.
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“This year, we’re especially thankful for the opportunity,” Halter said. “People who want to watch baseball that haven’t been able to all year can come out and watch. Hopefully, we can get a good crowd with a good atmosphere and energy.”
Stumpff said the No. 1 priority is for the safety of all involved and trying to get teams through to the end of the season. Twelve programs have ended their season due to positive coronavirus testing, including five in 4A.
Linn-Mar Coach Kyle Rodenkirk said it will provide a great atmosphere for the players, even if their concern is more on the game than the site.
“They aren’t thinking about it much,” Rodenkirk said. “We are focused on competing one pitch at a time.”
Linn-Mar (5-8) and West (7-7) had their regular-season games wiped out due to Linn-Mar waiting on negative coronavirus test results. The Lions are 2-2 in their last four with a victory over ninth-ranked Cedar Rapids Kennedy.
The Trojans have won three straight and four of the last five, tallying a win over Kennedy as well. Stumpff expects a tight contest.
“The margin of error is thin,” Stumpff said. “Everyone needs really good pitching. You need clean defense and scratch out some runs.”
Iowa City High is the second seed in a substate that saw top-seeded Southeast Polk end its season due to a positive COVID-19 test. Cedar Rapids Washington receives a first-round bye. The Little Hawks host Cedar Rapids Jefferson in the postseason opener for a field that is wide open.
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“It was always going to be up for grabs,” Stumpff said. “It’s probably the one substate where all five teams can say ‘Why not us?’ and all the teams are playing better.”
Rodenkirk skirted around the impact of the sixth-ranked team being eliminated before the playoffs.
”Doesn’t really affect us,” Rodenkirk said. “We are focused on West.”
Xavier will begin its trek back to the state tournament to defend its title. The Saints graduated some key figures to last year’s squad, but have talent for a deep run.
“It’s exciting,” Halter said. “Our guys are ready to get after it. You have to be locked in every pitch. Every team is in control of their own destiny.”
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