CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn-Mar assistant coach John Heald patiently waited for his time in front of the camera.
The Lions were holding a trophy with a little more meaning than just winning the Bob Vrbicek Metro baseball tournament. The trophy was actually crafted by Heald’s father and the late Hall of Fame Marion baseball coach Terry Heald.
“I haven’t yet,” Heald said about whether he had taken a photo with it. “I will.”
Linn-Mar hoisted the trophy and will carve its name on it for just the second time in school history, edging Cedar Rapids Washington, 4-3, in the championship game Wednesday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Reliever Nate Annis closed the Lions’ first Metro tournament title since 1994, getting Drew Dostal to line out to left field with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh.
“It feels really good,” Linn-Mar senior Kirby Kerr said. “I’ve wanted to win this since I started playing varsity baseball.
“No one thought we were going to win. Everybody thought we were going to get rolled over by Prairie (in the semifinals), but who cares? We thought we’d win.”
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The Lions (3-0) jumped to an early lead with a pair of two-run innings. Kerr sparked the Lions with a triple, burning the right fielder and scoring Rylan Lechner, who had a one-out single.
“Going up there, I saw they were really shallow,” said Kerr, who scored on a balk to put Linn-Mar up 2-0 after the first. “I was just going to try to put something out there. It happened to get over them.”
Linn-Mar used consecutive hits again to double its lead in the third. Jared Zieser and Gassmann smacked back-to-back doubles and scored. Lechner added an RBI single to make it 4-0 lead.
“Zieser has been working really hard,” Gassmann said. “He got on and I was just looking for a fastball I could hit hard. Luckily, I got one and was able to trade places with him.”
Gassmann said he knew he would have to make a bigger impact on the mound this season and he was up for the challenge. He threw five innings, allowing two runs and scattering seven hits. The run support helped him relax on the mound.
“Any time you can pitch with the lead helps your confidence, knowing that if you give up a run you still have the lead,” Gassmann said. “They did a great job of getting on the board early.”
Reliever Michael Oleson bridged the gap between Gassmann and Annis, who came in after one batter in the seventh and alternated outs with strategic walks for the save. Linn-Mar pitchers didn’t allow more than one run in an inning despite Washington getting the leadoff batter on in all but one inning.
Pitching was a question mark but the Lions provided some answers.
“I’ve been encouraged in the Metro tournament with the pitchers we’ve sent out there,” Linn-Mar Coach Chad Lechner said. “They’re doing what we’ve asked. Keeping it simple and pitch counts down.”
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The Warriors (2-1) had their chances but baserunning mistakes in the first and third innings prevented possible scores. They continued to chip away, giving them a chance in their final at-bat.
Brady Bunten singled and scored on Luke Jonasson’s base hit in the fourth. Trey Leonard, who was 2-for-3 with a walk, added an RBI triple in the fifth. Dostal led off the sixth with a triple and scored on Jacob Bockenstedt’s sacrifice fly to pull within one.
The Lions are led by a strong group of upperclassmen, who have won sophomore championships, according to Lechner. Many gained experienced last season and it seems to be paying dividends at the start of this year.
“We have 13 seniors,” Lechner said. “It helps. It’s a lot of seniors but it’s some pretty talented seniors.”
Linn-Mar survived an extra-inning affair against Mount Vernon in the opening round. The Lions topped defending state champion Cedar Rapids Prairie, 8-3, in the semifinal. The Lions were on the other end of the spectrum last year. They expected to be here, even if others didn’t.
“Any time coming into a tournament, you have to expect to win,” Gassmann said. “I can definitely say it feels great because last year we got second-to-last. It’s a step up and we look to continue the success during the season.”
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