DES MOINES — North Linn Coach Travis Griffith said he loves his players’ toughness.
The trait is exactly what propelled them to a thrilling come-from-behind victory earlier this week. It is the same intangible that put them in position to pull out another classic.
It just wasn’t enough to finish the job.
Des Moines Christian limited second-ranked North Linn’s late rallies and strung together three straight hits for two runs in the top of the eighth and a 4-2 victory in a Class 2A state baseball semifinal Thursday night at Principal Park. The Lions (17-6) advance to the title game for the first time, taking on defending champion and top-ranked Van Meter (22-2) here Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
“We had them on the ropes again for a chance to walk it off,” Griffith said. “I love the resiliency of this group. They could have folded the tents two or three times and they kept fighting back.
“I’m just proud of these kids for what they’ve done on and off the field. The resiliency and a young a group of kids that never quit. We’re going to get better.”
Lions starter Trey Castile and North Linn senior Nathan McEnany were locked in a pitcher’s duel, combining to allow just one hit through the first five innings.
The dramatics began in the sixth inning when the Lions’ Ben Leusink led off with a triple to right and scored on a Dalton Lewis double to left. Lewis scored on Colby Shelton’s RBI single for a 2-0 lead.
Similar to North Linn’s quarterfinal rally against Durant, the bottom of the order helped answer. Cael Bridgewater and Jarin Peyton opened with walks and Ben Wheatley executed a bunt single to load the bases. Austin Hilmer’s fielder’s choice pulled the Lynx within one heading into the seventh.
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McEnany reached on an error to start the frame and Alex Sturbaum was hit by a pitch to put the tying and winning runs on base with none out. A fielder’s choice moved courtesy runner Jake Van Etten to third.
North Linn, which has been a small-ball team in the past, went back to one of its old plays — a squeeze play. Bridgewater placed it where no one could field it, scoring Van Etten and reaching base.
Castile buckled down and thwarted both threats, getting strikeouts to end each inning.
In the eighth, Shelton and Bradley opened with singles and Adam Witty delivered an RBI double. Castile’s sacrifice fly to score Bradley was some insurance.
Castile (5-2) retired the Lynx in order thanks to second basemen Zach Dueker, who made a diving catch of a ball that tipped off Bradley’s glove, robbing Hilmer of a leadoff single. It also prevented the tying run from coming to the plate.
“We have a lot to be proud of,” Hilmer said. “We fought those last two innings. That pitcher shut us down through five innings. Those last two innings we battled.
“We almost pulled it off. We fought and that’s all you can ask for.”
Castile allowed the two infield singles and struck out nine, going the distance.
“We haven’t seen velocity like that in a long time,” Hilmer said. “I don’t think we have all season. He had great velocity and hit his spots very well. We just couldn’t hit it.
“We didn’t have the bats rolling today and that happens sometimes.”
McEnany went seven innings, scattering nine hits. He threw a gem in the substate final to get the Lynx back to state. He’s done it all while battling a shoulder injury late in the season.
“I was feeling good and then at a certain point I felt my velocity was going down,” McEnany said. “Shoulder is a little sore now. I was only throwing a two-seam and a four-seam (fastball) the whole night.”
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North Linn earned its second straight state semifinal trip, finishing 19-3. Something that not many considered a possibility at the start of the year due to the talent that graduated after last season.
“We came through and we raised the expectation of what people had of us,” said Ricky Bebensee, who pitched a scoreless inning of relief with two strikeouts. “I think we just did a good job of fighting, making the plays and hitting the ball, but it’s a strong team we went against. I think everyone played their hardest. We wanted it really bad. We made it pretty far and had a good run, but it just wasn’t quite enough.”
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