Roland-Story travels comeback trail on Columbus

The short trip down Interstate 35 demanded a comeback of inconceivable distance.

But when Ben Clark lashed a full-count fastball inside the chalk line in left field, Roland-Story earned it.

The fifth-ranked Norsemen trailed 7-0 four innings into Tuesday’s Class 2A Substate 3 final, only to trek all the way back for an improbable 9-8 win over Columbus Catholic of Waterloo and advance to the state baseball tournament for the second year in a row.

All nine Norse runs came in the final three innings, though none as celebrated as Clark’s walk-off winner. The senior move-in from Kearney, Neb., guessed fastball from Columbus reliever Luke Farley on a full-count pitch with Zach Hovick on third base. All he wanted to do was make contact, and a College World Series-like celebration broke out when the ball landed in fair territory.

It was Clark’s first hit in his last 16 at-bats, and it was a game-winner.

“I’d been struggling for a while now, the last three or four games, so I’m just happy to come through and help the team out in that way,” Clark said. “I’ve been putting the ball in play but they hadn’t been falling. Finally that one fell in.”

And knocked out Waterloo Columbus. The Sailors (23-17) had advanced to three of the last four state tournaments at Principal Park, but five errors led to six unearned runs and sunk Columbus’ quest for another trip to Des Moines.

A seven-run lead somehow was not enough. Greg Glass hit a two-run homer in the second inning and the Sailors sent 10 batters to the plate in a five-run fourth. It might have been more if not for Caleb Schlatter’s diving catch to end the inning.

The Norsemen (26-12) huddled outside their dugout prior to their ensuing at-bat, not content to see their season end the way this game was going.

“We talked about how hard it was going to be to come back, but if we worked as a group we could achieve it,” said R-S coach Chris Hill, still dripping from the ice-water celebration bath. “If Caleb doesn’t make that catch it could have been completely different, the comeback really started with that catch.

“We weren’t able to score in the fourth but we got it going in the fifth and we took advantage of a few of their mistakes.”

Four of the Sailors’ five errors came from the fifth inning on. No. 9 batter John Barclay reached on an error to start the fifth, and Columbus left-hander Pat McLaughlin hit Hovick and walked Alex Urbanek. After a shallow flyout to left by Clark, Alex Muhlenburg drove in Roland-Story’s first run with a fly to deep right. Tyler Hovick followed with a run-scoring single, and Cole Birchmeier walked.

Joe Horak’s relief appearance began with four straight balls and a run-scoring walk to Andrew Schlatter, and Jake Ford’s infield single made it 7-4. A groundout finally ended the inning, but the Norsemen had the momentum they needed.

Muhlenburg, Roland-Story’s third pitcher of the night, held Columbus in check for the final three frames and added a two-run single in the sixth. Birchmier’s single chased Horak, and Andrew Schlatter greeted Farley with a two-out, run-scoring single that bounced off the third-base bag. Ford plated another with a single up the middle, tying the game at 8-all.

Muhlenburg got the Sailors in order in the top of the seventh, including a diving stab by Clark for the third out, and Farley hit Zach Hovick to start the bottom half.

Urbanek’s attempts to sacrifice bunt failed, but his groundout with Hovick moving on the full-count offering got the game-winning run into scoring position. A wild pitch advanced Hovick to third, and Clark delivered the heroic single moments later.

“After that big inning of theirs, we got together and said we had to buckle down,” Clark said. “Down 7-0, I don’t think that’s ever happened. Yeah, there’s those thoughts when you’re down seven, but I’m glad we stayed positive.”

Muhlenburg got the win, striking out five in three innings of relief. Ace pitcher Zach Hovick, who threw in Saturday’s district final win over East Marshall, was tagged for six earned runs in three innings. Clark pitched an inning of relief but allowed all three baserunners he inherited from Hovick to score in the Sailors’ five-run fourth.

He made up for it before it was all over.

Farley (7-2) took the loss. He was also one of four Columbus players to collect two hits on the night. The Sailors outhit Roland-Story 11-9 but couldn’t overcome five errors and a combined six walks and four hit batsmen.

All nine Norse hits were singles. Muhlenburg was 2-for-3 with three RBIs and Ford was 2-for-4 with two RBIs to lead the way back to state.

Roland-Story is seeded fifth for the 2A state tournament and will face South Winneshiek (34-1) on Monday at 2 p.m. The Warriors are seeded fourth and ranked eighth.