Comets take second again at state, win another HOIC crown
The ending may have been painful, but the big picture painted another remarkable run for the North Polk baseball team in 2013.
North Polk went 31-5 overall and won its 11th Heart of Iowa Conference title in 12 years with a 14-2 conference mark in 2013. The Comets advanced to the state playoffs for the third year in a row and for the second-straight time they advanced to the championship game in Class 2A.
But like last year, when they went 31-4, the Comets had to settle for being No. 2. North Polk lost to Beckman Catholic for the second-straight year in the 2A championship, this time dropping a gut-wrenching 2-1 game in the bottom of the seventh inning after falling by a 3-1 score last year.
Even though the title game didn’t go the Comets’ way, they didn’t have anything to be ashamed of when their season came to a close.
"We were able to win conference, district and substate titles and we had a nice state tourney run," North Polk head coach Dave Middleton said after guiding his team to the state title game for the fourth time. "Our ninth-grade team finished 17-5 and our JV team turned in a 16-9 record. As coaches we were pleased with the amount of work and improvement our players demonstrated as the year progressed. You can’t just look at the wins and losses; it’s important for each player to have an idea of what they need to do to become better and be competitive. I really think our guys understood that and they worked on those specific skills."
North Polk opened the season by defeating HOIC rivals South Hamilton and Colfax-Mingo before beginning its annual swing against tough larger schools.
On May 24 North Polk suffered a 4-3 loss at Urbandale. But the next day at the Tim Heggan Classic in Ankeny, the Comets swept ranked 3A foe Adel-Desoto-Minburn and defending 4A state champion Ankeny.
"Beating Ankeny at the beginning of the year gave our team an idea of what they could be," Middleton said.
Those two victories marked the beginning of an impressive stretch where North Polk won 18 of 19 games to garner the No. 1 ranking in 2A from the Iowa Baseball Coaches Association.
During the hot streak North Polk defeated Nevada, Norwalk, Bondurant-Farrar, Prairie City-Monroe, Greene County, South Hamilton, Marshalltown, Colfax-Mingo, Saydel and Ballard. The Comets also swept Gilbert and Collins-Maxwell-Baxter.
The only loss during the run came when North Polk split a doubleheader with then-No. 4 Roland-Story on June 19 in Alleman. The Norsemen went on to reach the state semifinals in 2A.
A 6-3 loss at Nevada on June 27, followed by splitting games with I-35 and Johnston the next day, briefly halted the Comets’ hot streak.
But it didn’t take long for North Polk to get back in a good groove.
The Comets topped West Marshall on July 2 and destroyed PCM and Greene County in their next two games. North Polk then wrapped-up the HOIC title with a 6-2 win over second-place Saydel at Alleman on July 9, and two days later, the Comets closed out the regular season with a 7-3 non-conference win at Carlisle.
District competition began on July 11 in Alleman and North Polk was given a big scare by Des Moines Christian. The Comets took a 4-0 lead, only to see the Lions tie the game in the seventh inning, and North Polk had to hang on for a 5-4 win in 10 innings.
The close call turned out to be beneficial as it seemed to loosen the tension of postseason play starting and get the players more focused. The result was two-straight dominant performances to get the Comets back to state as they whipped West Marshall by an 11-3 score in the district title game and then crushed I-35 by a 17-0 margin at substate.
North Polk opened 2A competition at state against Albia. The game turned out to be a classic, going 13 innings and three hours, 35 minutes as the longest game in state tournament history before the Comets pulled off a 2-1 win.
"The 13-inning game against Albia was a highlight," Middleton said. "We played great defense to hang in the game and made some big-time plays."
In the 2A semifinals, North Polk took down Kuemper Catholic by a 6-2 score to advance to the championship.
"The semifinal win over Kuemper was maybe the best overall game we played all year," Middleton said.
That set up the championship game rematch against Beckman Catholic.
North Polk was dealt a severe blow in the top of the fourth inning when Jacob Hadaway – the all-state ace of the pitching staff – had to be taken out of the game with ankle injury he suffered trying to steal second. North Polk held a slim 1-0 lead at the time and thanks to the gritty performance of relief pitcher Grant Lang and a great defensive effort, the Comets maintained that edge going into the bottom of the seventh.
But then everything fell apart at the wrong time as Beckman Catholic pushed the tying and winning runs across on bases-loaded walks. The end result aside, Middleton said he was glad to get the opportunity to play in a championship game again.
"We had a large and supportive crowd at state and it was a great atmosphere for the kids," Middleton said. "The experience the whole week was very memorable."
Pitching was the key ingredient to North Polk’s success on the season. The Comets possessed one of the best staffs in the entire state as they combined to allow just 71 runs – 1.98 per game – with an earned-run average of 1.36 and 331 strikeouts against just 111 walks in 246 1/3 innings.
"Pitching was really good," Middleton said. "We had a team ERA of 1.36 and opponents’ had a batting average of .148. We had six guys who won at least one game and a couple others who threw well in relief."
Hadaway was brilliant in his final year, earning first-team all-state honors by the Iowa Newspaper Association. He went 7-1 with an ERA of 0.73, 117 strikeouts and 29 walks in 67 innings.
Hadaway finished his career with the best four-year ERA in school history at 0.823.
Lang also went 7-1 and he had an ERA of 1.08 with 74 strikeouts and 27 walks in 51 2/3 innings. Junior Cole Jackson was the other big workhorse in the rotation as he threw a team-high 68 2/3 innings and finished 8-2 with a 1.33 ERA, 94 strikeouts and 26 walks.
Russell Greene and Austin Hillebo also had quality innings during the season and they combined to go a perfect 8-0. Greene was 5-0 with a 1.50 ERA, 22 strikeouts and 15 walks in 28 innings and Hillebo finished 3-0 with a 2.06 ERA, 15 strikeouts and seven walks in 17 innings.
Reed Smith also threw seven innings and he was 1-0 with an ERA of 6.00. Blake Brauer threw four innings and had a 3.50 ERA and Zach Brecht posted a 2.33 ERA in three innings of work.
The great Comet pitching was backed up by strong defense in the field. North Polk totaled a fielding average of .956 with 46 errors in 1,050 chances.
Lang made third-team all-state after a great year at catcher that saw him throw out seven base runners. He also had a .978 fielding average, combining his defensive efforts at catcher and pitcher.
Smith anchored a strong Comet outfield. He played primarily in left field and went error-free in 23 chances with 19 putouts and four assists.
Center fielder Clay Cory made 28 putouts and four assists. Grant Schiltz finished with just two errors, splitting time at catcher and in right field, and Jackson only had one miscue with 15 putouts, spending time in the outfield along with his pitching duties.
In the infield Hadaway and Greene split time at shortstop and Greene also helped out at third. Hadaway tallied 67 assists and 46 putouts and Greene recorded 33 assists and 19 putouts.
Hillebo held down third base in the final weeks of the season. He only had one error and totaled 29 assists and eight putouts.
Senior Wyatt Houge finished with 62 assists, 43 putouts and just six errors at second base. Brandon Cory, another senior, finished with 190 putouts and six errors at first base.
Wyatt Johnson had 14 putouts and one error playing some first base and Brauer was errorless in seven chances in the field.
On offense North Polk had to overcome the loss of potent hitters Noah Pickard, Sam Pickard and Zach Easter off last year’s team. But the Comets were still productive in 2013, scoring 237 runs compared to 244 a year ago.
North Polk hit .330 as a team this season with a .420 on-base average and .432 slugging average. The Comets totaled 111 walks, 87 steals, 68 doubles, seven home runs and five triples.
Brandon Cory was the top hitter for the Comets. The first-team all-HOIC performer hit .404 with a .477 slugging average, eight doubles, 33 runs and 25 RBI.
Smith was right behind Brandon with a .397 average and he posted a team-high .493 OBA along with a .483 slugging mark. Smith connected for five doubles, one triple and hone home run; he swiped 19 bases in 22 tries, drove home 13 runs and led the team with 39 runs scored and eight sacrifice hits, earning second-team all-state recognition.
Hadaway turned in his best season by far at the plate with a .381 batting average and ranking second on the team with a .562 slugging mark. Hadaway hit 11 doubles, one triple and two home runs and he scored 23 runs and drove in a team-best 30.
Houge posted a .340 average with seven doubles, 18 runs and 24 RBI. Greene hit .330 with 12 doubles, 17 steals and 27 runs and RBI apiece.
Schiltz hit .327 with a .456 OBA, four doubles, 23 runs, 14 RBI and 12 steals.
Lang led the team in home runs (three), extra-base hits (17), and slugging average (.583), and tied for the lead in doubles (12). He hit .323 with 12 runs and 27 RBI.
Clay finished with a .273 average, four doubles, one triple, 20 runs, 16 RBI and nine steals. Hillebo hit .261 with a .433 OBA and seven runs and Jackson finished with a .221 average, four doubles, one home run, 10 runs and eight RBI.
Brauer had one hit in five at-bats, Johnson scored twice, Chris Flynn crossed the plate four times, Brecht drove in a run and Jon Lackore and Braeden Ingersoll each scored once.
Matt Cox and Dillon McBee were the top pinch runners for North Polk. Cox scored 11 runs and stole seven bases, and McBee finished with five runs and one steal.
"Hitting was very comparable to last year, as was fielding, after losing some great players off the 2012 team," Middleton said. "That is a tribute to everyone’s hard work."
North Polk suffers some big losses with the graduation of Hadaway, Houge and the two Corys.
"They provided a great nucleus and we were able to count on them for coming up with the spark we needed," Middleton said. "In the four years they played high school ball, the program went 107-31, won four conference titles and four district championships, made three trips to state and finished runner-up twice."
But all is certainly not lost next season. Middleton will have the rest of his talented pitching staff back, along with some quality hitters and experienced fielders as the Comets look to make yet another run at both a conference title and state tournament appearance in 2014.
"We have a pretty talented junior class that will need to step in and fill some gaps," Middleton said. "We’ll have 24 of our 31 wins returning on the mound, and that is a good start. There are also some promising younger players who will compete for some varsity time. A lot can happen in a year in terms of a player’s skill development and overall strength. With a lot of hard work, we should be competitive again."