DES MOINES — It wasn’t a matter of if, but when and whether there was enough time.
Marion Coach Steve Fish recognized the potential. He also realized the players needed some time to grow into a team that could return to the state baseball tournament. The questions Fish had were answered last week when the Indians dropped third-ranked and 2019 state runner-up DeWitt Central for a third state berth in the last four seasons.
“Everything had to be done quickly,” said Fish, in his 21st season as head coach. “That was my concern. I would tell people ‘give us two or three more weeks and this group can be even more competitive.’ Normally, you have extra time, but everybody is in the same boat.”
Marion hit its stride late and will met top-seeded Sergeant Bluff-Luton on Tuesday in the Class 3A state quarterfinals at Principal Park, beginning at 1:30 p.m.
The Indians (10-10) are one of three Wamac Conference programs in the field, joining fifth-seeded Clear Creek Amana (16-5) and No. 7-seed Benton Community (13-11).
The season started slow, opening 1-7, but Marion has played well in recent weeks. The Indians went 9-3 in their last 12 games, including one-run victories over the Sabers, Dubuque Wahlert and a postseason win over Maquoketa to avenge their only loss to a 3A team in July.
“We’re playing with house money, right now,” Fish said. “It’s bonus baseball. Our chips are in. We keep pushing them in and here we go. We’re not afraid of anything.”
The substate victory over the Sabers was indicative of the development. Marion dropped two 7-2 decisions at Central to start the season. Fish said they weren’t very good in the opening doubleheader, but it was a better team that never trailed the Sabers last Wednesday.
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“We got lucky,” Fish said. “We got up and they came back. They botched some plays at the end. We were able to get ahead and win. Every time you go to state it’s usually a nail-biter. If you can win those, it proves your character.
“I’ve been proud of all my teams, but I’m really proud of how this group grew and matured. Now, we’re at the state tournament again. ... They kind of expected it. They’re having fun.”
The Indians had reason for optimism at the start. They returned a handful of starters from a team that reached the state semifinals last season. Seniors Dane Carstensen and Brady Johnson and juniors Owen Puk and all-stater Gage Franck were on the roster of the 2017 state team as well.
Franck leads Marion with 32 hits while Puk and Johnson are tied for second with 24 apiece. Carstensen is 5-1 in six starts, throwing six strong innings for the win against Central. Puk closed out the substate final for the save.
“They’ve kind of grown up in this program,” Fish said. “As juniors and seniors, they’re kind of the core.”
Fish emphasized this team isn’t satisfied with qualifying and isn’t conceding anything to the second-ranked Warriors (20-3). He said it will depend on how players handle the big stage and he has faith his players will be fine.
“We have a lot of respect for Sergeant Bluff,” Fish said. “They have a very good and athletic senior class. They’re good and we know that. We feel we’ve played some good teams and we’re not going to be in awe. Our guys have seen that (before).”
The Indians have seen talented teams on a daily basis because of their Wamac schedule. In the postseason, Wamac teams have beaten four top-10 ranked foes.
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Clear Creek Amana handled top-ranked Davenport Assumption in the substate final, securing its first state baseball trip. The Clippers open against fourth-seeded and unranked Norwalk (17-5) at 10:30 a.m.
Benton Community (13-11) posted a come-from-behind victory over another Wamac program, South Tama, to notch its first state berth since 2012. The Bobcats won a 3-2 nine-inning district final thriller over No. 5 Cedar Rapids Xavier, the 2019 state champion. They survived the Trojans, who beat No. 9 Waverly-Shell Rock to start the postseason.
Benton takes on second-seeded and fourth-ranked Dallas Center-Grimes (17-3) at 4:30 p.m.
“I’ve always said the Wamac Conference is one of the best baseball conferences in the state,” Fish said. “It’s good baseball. It’s not surprising to me. Every night in the Wamac there are teams getting better. It prepares us all the time, especially at the end of the season.”
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