DES MOINES — They were the ones North Linn wanted up with the game on the line.
The fiery leader and resilient senior were the ones they needed after four freshmen fought to give them one more chance to extend the season.
Austin Hilmer and Parker Bechen delivered back-to-back singles to score the tying and winning runs of second-ranked North Linn’s 2-1 come-from-behind thriller over seventh-seeded Durant in the Class 2A state baseball quarterfinals Monday night at Principal Park. The Lynx (19-2) reached the third straight semifinal in their fifth state trip of the last six seasons.
“This is my favorite game, by far,” Hilmer said. “Obviously, my role is a little bit bigger this year. To step up and get a big hit, I’m glad I got that opportunity. I’m so proud of these guys.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a walk-off here at state in the last three years, so this one was pretty special.”
Bechen produced one last memorable moment and one that will top his all-time list. He has come a long way from his freshman year when he was hit in the head with a line drive during a morning batting practice accident. He needed surgery to insert multiple plates in his forehead and nasal areas.
“It’s exhilarating,” Bechen said. “Probably the biggest hit of my baseball career. All 14 years of it. I’m just happy for this team that we got this one.”
Hilmer and Durant’s Nate Dierickx were locked in a pitcher’s duel through 6 1/2 innings. Neither had given up more than two hits or an earned run. The Wildcats (13-5) clung to a 1-0 lead entering North Linn’s final chance.
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North Linn Coach Travis Griffith huddled with his players before the final inning. He explained that they had threatened to score almost each inning but made mistakes. He conveyed a simple message.
“I told my four freshmen all you have to do is get to the top (of the batting order),” Griffith said. “You get to Austin you will win this game. Get a couple guys on base. Put some pressure on them and let the top take care of business.
“Austin has done it his entire career. Parker has had a phenomenal season.”
Freshman Corbin Woods battled for a leadoff walk, fouling off five pitches with two strikes in an 11-pitch at-bat. Even though the pickoff of a pinch runner emptied the bases, Cael Bridgewater followed with a base hit and moved into scoring position on a wild pitch.
Jarin Peyton was hit by a pitch to put the go-ahead run on base. Just as important as getting on base, it allowed the top of the order an opportunity to come to the plate. Hilmer paced in the on-deck circle as Ben Wheatley’s flyball was corralled for the second out.
Griffith talked to Hilmer before he stepped into the batter’s box. He told him to be patient, trust his preparation and don’t try to do too much.
“I said, ‘Son, you’ve been doing this your whole life,’” Griffith said. “‘This is exactly what we want. All you have to do is get us a base hit and let Parker take care of the rest.’”
Hilmer jumped on the first pitch and was retired easily in his first two at-bats. Similar to his single in the fifth, he smacked another base hit to center to bring in Bridgewater. Peyton advanced to third, setting up Bechen’s heroics.
“Those four freshmen came up and they battled,” Hilmer said. “When you’re down one in the last inning, you don’t usually expect four freshmen to step up like that, but they stepped up big, got runners on for us and I knew if I got up to the plate I was going to get a hit. I had that confidence.”
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Bechen took the pitch so Hilmer could move to second and avoid a force play. He noticed Dierickx grooved the first pitch like the first when Bechen hit his first single. He sat back, relied on his ability and ignited the Lynx celebration.
“As soon as it got past the pitcher and see the middle infield give up on it, my heart just started racing,” Bechen said. “I was so happy.”
The Lynx had to overcome a number of mistakes. Durant capitalized on two errors with Logan Callison’s RBI double in the first. North Linn ran into a couple outs, including Hilmer and Bechen at home and third in an inning-ending double play in the fifth.
It took a little adjustment for the young Lynx lineup, but they settled in, eventually.
“They were pretty mouth open and eyes open,” Griffith said. “You could see that the first inning. We were a little shaky, but after that first inning I thought we settled down well. Props to the kids for coming out and competing in that last inning.
“We ran into some outs. That’s what we do. We’re aggressive.”
Dierickx (6-1) was impressive, striking out seven and stranding runners in scoring positon in each of the first three innings. Hilmer improved to 9-0. He allowed just two hits and struck out six.
“We’re different with him on the mound,” said Griffith. “He competed, though. That’s a good hitting team. He mixed it up well. What do you say? The kid is a gamer.”
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