NORTH LIBERTY — Iowa City Liberty finds itself in a unique situation.
Playing for a state baseball berth was expected from the veteran group. The fact it serves as the Lightning’s postseason opener makes it different.
“It definitely is weird,” senior Nolan Frey said. “The main thing coach has preached to us all year is it’s about us. We have to come out to practice and feel confident about what we’re doing. When we do that we feel we can hang with anybody.”
After two straight byes, 10th-ranked Liberty will host Pleasant Valley in the Class 4A Substate 5 final Wednesday night at Liberty Stadium. The unopposed path has led to a shot at the Lightning’s first state berth in three seasons of existence.
“This is exactly where we envisioned to be, having that first substate final game here at Liberty,” senior Tyler Dahm said. “We couldn’t be more excited to be at home for the substate final and a chance to go to Principal Park. It’s a really cool experience with the community there.”
Liberty earned the No. 1 seed with a 10-5 record. First-round opponent Muscatine had to cancel its postseason due to a member of the program testing positive for COVID-19. With the highest remaining seed already assured of a semifinal bye, the Lightning moved right into the final with a chance to make history with a victory.
“We’re trying to be ready,” said Liberty Coach Tom Cronk, whose team went 11 days without a game as other teams were idle due to testing. “I think it was fortunate that we had a break earlier in the year. We’re a little bit (better) equipped than if it were the first time.”
Liberty has tried to keep things as normal as possible, scheduling a live scrimmage with its sophomore squad Friday, which would have been the time of its first-round game. It held an intrasquad game Monday to keep players sharp.
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“There’s no substitute for playoff baseball,” Cronk said. “The pressure of those moments is something we haven’t had, but I’ve got an experienced group. We’ve been through these battles the last two years and I expect them to come through again.”
Live action was the best thing for the team. Practice is important, but live at-bats and gamelike repetition is necessary to stay sharp.
“We have just have been trying to keep up the intensity level at practice, knowing we have the big game on Wednesday,” Dahm said.
Liberty is stocked with three-year starters with postseason experience. Many cut their varsity teeth as underclassmen and have improved each season. They also have a tight bond that began when some played together before high school.
“It’s really been a lot of fun,” Frey said. “Our first couple years we treated it like building almost to this point. We’re really excited to see what we can do this year.”
The break has its benefit as well. The Lightning pitching staff will all be available. They will be throwing everything and the proverbial kitchen sink at a savvy Pleasant Valley team with state experience.
“When you get to this time of year, it’s all hands on deck no matter what,” Cronk said. “We feel good about where we’re at. We have all the horses in the barn and we’re ready to go. Now, it’s time to perform.”
In other area action Wednesday:
• Ninth-ranked Cedar Rapids Kennedy (14-5) also is a top seed and hosts Cedar Falls (6-1) in the Substate 3 final. Linn-Mar (7-8) will take on Iowa City High (10-8) for the Substate 6 title at Mercer Park. Cedar Rapids Prairie (12-5) will look to upend No. 4 Dubuque Hempstead (14-1) for the Substate 4 championship.
• In Class 3A, Marion (9-10) plays at No. 3 DeWitt Central (17-5) for the Substate 4 title. Top-ranked Davenport Assumption (20-4) hosts Clear Creek Amana (15-5) at Modern Woodman Park for the state berth in Substate 5. South Tama (7-16) takes on Benton Community (12-11) at Van Horne. The Trojans knocked off No. 9 Waverly-Shell Rock in the opening round and beat Charles City to reach the substate game, earning a chance for their second state berth and first since 2000. The Bobcats topped defending state champion and fifth-ranked Cedar Rapids Xavier, 3-2, in nine innings for the district crown. They are looking for their first state trip since 2012.
Class 4A substate finals
Substate 1: No. 5 Sioux City East (18-5) at No. 1 Johnston (20-3)
Substate 2: Mason City (15-7) at No. 7 Waukee (13-12)
Substate 3: Cedar Falls (6-1) at No. 9 Cedar Rapids Kennedy (14-5)
Substate 4: Cedar Rapids Prairie (12-5) at No. 4 Dubuque Hempstead (14-1)
Substate 5: Pleasant Valley (12-11) at No. 10 Iowa City Liberty (10-5)
Substate 6: Linn-Mar (7-8) at Iowa City High (10-8)
Substate 7: Des Moines Roosevelt (16-11) at No. 3 Urbandale (16-9)
Substate 8: Council Bluffs Lincoln (9-13) at No. 2 Ankeny (18-8)
Class 3A substate finals
Substate 1: No. 10 MOC-Floyd Valley (18-2) at No. 2 Sergeant Bluff-Luton (19-3)
Substate 2: Boone (13-4) at No. 6 Gilbert (20-3)
Substate 3: South Tama (7-16) at Benton Community (12-11)
Substate 4: Marion (9-10) at No. 3 DeWitt Central (17-5)
Substate 5, at Modern Woodmen Park (Davenport): Clear Creek Amana (15-5) vs. No. 1 Davenport Assumption (20-4)
Substate 6: Centerville (12-3) at Norwalk (16-5)
Substate 7: Bondurant-Farrar (7-10) at Adel ADM (11-7)
Substate 8: Harlan (14-3) at No. 4 Dallas Center-Grimes (16-3)
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