The North Polk baseball team is back to its old self after reaching 25 victories and tying for the Heart of Iowa Conference championship in 2017.

After winning the 2A state championship in 2014, North Polk endured back-to-back .500 seasons before finishing 2017 at 25-9 overall. The Comets went 12-2 in the HOIC to tie Class 3A state qualifier Saydel for the conference title.

“It was a really great season, where I thought we kept everything moving forward,” North Polk head baseball coach Dave Middleton said. “Our kids were a pleasure to work with. I can only think of one day where I thought our effort was lacking. But then again, these guys set the bar so high it still was probably a pretty good effort. It was really fun to see us be more competitive again and develop a better degree of mental toughness.”

The season began the usual way for a Middleton-coached team — with North Polk facing off against several talented larger programs.

The Comets started off 7-4, with losses coming to the other top-four HOIC teams — Saydel, Gilbert and Nevada — along with 4A power Ankeny Centennial. North Polk defeated South Hamilton, Prairie City-Monroe, Collins-Maxwell-Baxter, East Marshall and larger schools in Perry, Burlington and Urbandale.

That early stretch clearly gave North Polk confidence. The Comets went on to win 10 straight from June 8-21.

North Polk defeated Norwalk twice, Marshalltown and Creston in non-conference play during the streak. The Comets also swept a doubleheader from Roland-Story, avenged their losses to Gilbert and Nevada, and took down Greene County and South Hamilton in HOIC games.

“I thought we’d be pretty competitive, but as the season progressed, we kept winning a lot of close games,” Middleton said. “Suddenly we were back in the conference hunt and had built a ton of momentum. Everyone just got better, from what few veterans we had to the first-year varsity guys.”

On June 23, North Polk fell to both Des Moines Christian and Bishop Heelan Catholic at the Prange Classic. But it didn’t take long for the Comets to get back to their winning ways as they won five in a row from June 26 through July 6.

The Comets whipped CMB (12-0) and blanked PCM (5-0) and defeated non-conference rival Ballard in a 3-2 battle during that stretch. They ended it with big one-run wins over a powerful 2A team in West Marshall (2-1) and their biggest win of the season — a 1-0 victory over Saydel on July 6.

Pella and Carlisle defeated North Polk on July 7 and 10 respectively. But the Comets ended the regular season by defeating Greene County (6-2) to clinch a tie for the HOIC, and then knocked off eventual state qualifier Bondurant-Farrar (4-1).

“These kids believed in each other and offered each other support all year,” Middleton said. “Depending on who was pitching or for any other reason, we had several different lineups. Three or four kids shared a lot of time between a spot or two. They all supported each other and were really unselfish. I can’t talk about it enough and how that attitude allowed us to experience some success.”

In the 3A district semifinals, North Polk downed Dallas Center-Grimes in a nine-inning battle. The Comets were down to their final out down 2-0 before rallying for a 3-2 win in nine innings.

That fortune didn’t carry over into the district finals against Boone. The game again went into extra innings, but this time North Polk came up on the short end of a 3-2 decision to end the season.

“It was really fun to see us be more competitive again and develop a better degree of mental toughness,” Middleton said. “On the very last play of the season, we had (Adam) Moxley and (Anthony) Capaldo diving for a bloop hit. That’s the team I will always remember. We left nothing out on the field.”

During the season North Polk scored 181 runs, hitting .304 with a .404 on-base percentage, .404 slugging average, 44 doubles, four triples, four home runs, 128 walks and 60 steals in 71 attempts.

The Comets had seven players with at least 10 at-bats hit .300 or better. Six different players scored at least 15 runs, seven individuals drove in 13 runs or more and four swiped at least eight bases.

“We had several kids step in and really contribute,” Middleton said. “That’s what good teams do.”

North Polk also posted a team fielding average of .940 with 686 putouts, 241 assists and 59 errors in 986 chances.

Colby Cupp, Jeff Lamp, Ben Rupe, Colten Parkins, Matthew Antle and Moxley were the Comet regulars to hit over .300. Cupp, Rupe, Parkins and Antle each made the all-HOIC first team and Lamp landed on the second team.

Cupp posted a .409 batting average, .511 OBP, .491 SA, five doubles, two triples, 11 steals, 22 walks, 28 runs and 16 RBI. In the infield, he made 52 assists and 28 putouts.

Lamp hit .343 with a .405 OBP, .525 SA, nine doubles, three home runs, four steals and 25 runs and RBI apiece. Playing primarily at first base, Lamp compiled 158 putouts and 12 assists with just one error.

Rupe tallied a .339 batting average, .395 OBP, .438 SA, nine doubles, one triple, eight steals, 20 runs and 13 RBI. In the field he had 61 putouts, nine assists and only four errors.

Parkins recorded a .330 batting average, .417 OBP, .380 SA, 19 walks, five doubles, nine steals, 18 runs and 24 RBI. In the outfield and on the mound he had 51 putouts, 20 assists and just one error.

Antle delivered a .308 batting average, .429 OBP, .352 SA, two doubles, one triple, 19 walks and 15 RBI. At catcher he threw out seven base runners in 12 assists and finished with 18 assists and only one error.

Moxley hit right at .300 with a .462 OBP, .375 SA, three doubles, nine walks, nine runs and six steals. In the outfield, he made 22 putouts and one assist with two errors.

Junior Tyler Sinclair hit .300 in 10 at-bats with with four RBI.

Payton Johnson posted a .289 batting average with a .411 OBP, one double, four steals, 10 runs and seven RBI in his junior year. In the field he ended up with seven putouts and six assists.

Sophomore Clark Hood hit .273 with three hits in 11 at bats.

Mason Russell made all-HOIC honorable mention his junior year after recording a .270 batting average ,.379 OBP, two doubles, 12 runs and six RBI. He had 41 putouts and threw out two base runners in the field.

Jake Johnson registered a .244 batting average, .349 OBP, three doubles, one home run, eight walks, 15 runs and 14 RBI. He totaled 51 assists and 22 putouts in the field.

Senior Anthony Capaldo tallied a .241 batting average, .353 OBP, five steals, one double and 11 runs. In the field he finished with 19 assists and 17 putouts.

Dawson Deitch made all-HOIC honorable mention his senior year after hitting .235 with four doubles and 13 RBI. He totaled 48 putouts, one assist and no errors in the field.

Second baseman Ryan Spalding recorded a .273 OBP in 16 at-bats with four runs. In the field he delivered 42 assists and 37 putouts.

The North Polk pitching staff surrendered only 97 runs, with an excellent 2.11 earned-run average in 228 ⅔ innings. The Comet staff compiled 226 strikeouts and only 108 walks and eight hit batsmen and opposing teams hit just .174.

“Performance-wise, our pitching staff was really solid,” Middleton said. “We had seven kids who won at least one game and our team ERA was 2.11 (last year was 3.63).”

“Our staff kept us in games,” Middleton said. “ We also worked really hard at holding runners and trying to control the running game. We got a lot better in that aspect.”

Jake Johnson, Parkins and Cupp handled most of the load for North Polk on the mound.

Jake Johnson went a perfect 7-0 with an ERA of 0.80 along with 46 strikeouts and just eight walks in 52 ⅔ innings. Parkins was 5-2 with a 1.35 ERA, team-high 77 strikeouts and 19 walks in 51 ⅔ innings and Cupp finished 6-1 with an ERA of 0.90, 38 strikeouts and 20 walks in 39 innings.

Rupe finished 3-1 with a 1.42 ERA, 24 strikeouts and 21 walks in 24 ⅔ innings and Antle ended up 1-1 with a 3.82 ERA, 12 strikeouts and 14 walks in 18 ⅓ innings. Hood tallied a 2-1 record with a 4.88 ERA, 16 strikeouts and nine walks in 18 ⅔ innings and Ryan Spaulding compiled a 1-3 record with a 6.56 ERA, eight strikeouts and five walks in 16 innings.

Capaldo threw four innings, Sutton Sears 3 ⅓ and Russell ⅓ of an inning.

North Polk loses a large senior class in Rupe, Antle, Moxley, Capaldo, Deitch and Spaulding.

“A great bunch of kids who were a pleasure to work with,” Middleton said. “It was really a great experience to watch them grow up and every one of them contributed to our identity. This group was extremely fun-loving and that made everything relaxed.”

But with Cupp, Parkins and Lamp back to lead the way, North Polk has an excellent shot at repeating as HOIC champions and making a run at the 3A state tournament.

“We have 20 wins returning to the mound (and) we also have some hitting experience returning as well,” Middleton said. “Overall, we certainly have to continue to get stronger. I felt like we worked pretty hard in the weight room and that has to be a priority for everyone. The kids also need to continue to work on their pitching mechanics and take some opportunities to hit as much as they can.”