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Your Prep Sports
DES MOINES – A thrilling postseason run and historic season came to an end for West Branch on Monday with a loss in the quarterfinals of the Class 2A state tournament.
It took the top-seeded team and one of the most accomplished players in state history to finally stop the breakthrough season for the Bears.
Second-ranked North Linn scored six runs in the first inning and got four innings of one hit baseball from ace Jake Hilmer in an 8-1 win over West Branch (20-8) at Principal Park in Des Moines.
North Linn (39-5) sent 10 batters to the plate in the six-run first inning while advancing to the state semifinals for the second consecutive season.
“They are very good and very good at getting you down early,” West Branch senior Ted Bridges said. “If you don’t answer that right away you dig yourself a hole and it’s hard to get out of.”
The early six-run lead was more than enough for Hilmer who entered as the all-time career wins leader in the modern era of high school baseball.
Hilmer struck out seven in four innings while improving to 14-2 on the season and upping his career win total to 60.
“Coming in they are the number one seed and they have one of the best athletes in the history of the state pitching so you really don’t want to start like,” West Branch junior Eagle said. “It happened and we just tried to keep the mentality that we’ve come back before.”
North Linn sent 10 batters to the plate and took advantage of three walks and a hit batter in the six-run first inning.
Ninth place hitter Marcus Hromidko who entered with five hits on the season provided the big blow in the six-run first with a two-run single that put North Linn up 5-0.
It was the first two RBIs of the season for Hromidko who had 35 at bats during the regular season.
“Getting those six runs in the first inning, you want to get one or two but six is a big luxury,” Hilmer said. “That was definitely good for us.”
The first five batters reached for North Linn which took a 2-0 lead before making its first out.
Jake Hilmer reached on an error and Austin Hilmer followed with a double before West Branch starter Matt Paulsen issued three straight walks.
Hromidko and Jake Hilmer both added RBI singles as the Lynx built a 6-0 lead.
“We give tons of credit where credit is due,” West Branch coach Andy Lapel said. “He came in and did his job and we were hoping that we weren’t going to let the nerves get the best of us and the first inning we had an error and a couple of walks and it snowballed pretty quick.”
That was plenty for Hilmer who allowed just a two-out single to Brady Lukavsky in the first inning.
The senior right-hander retired the final 10 Bears he faced, seven via strikeout, and left with a 7-0 lead after four innings.
“He was good,” Bridges said of Hilmer. “We feel like we had an off day and it was a combination of his good work on the mound and some lacking at the plate on our part.”
West Branch got on the board in the fifth when Eagle was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning and Bridges followed with a single to right off North Linn reliever Trevor Boge.
Eagle came around to score on an RBI groundout by senior Mitch Knoop.
“I’m super proud of the fight in all of our guys,” Bridges said. “Whether they are in the dugout or on the field its been tremendous all year. That’s what got us here and it stinks to end it this way but there is no better spot to end it.”
West Branch got one out singles in each of the final two innings but couldn’t must any more offense.
Tanner Lukavsky singled with one away in the sixth and Bridges had his second hit of the game, a single with one out in the seventh but neither advanced any further.
“Those guys should be super proud to be one of the best eight teams out of 96,” Lapel said. “We fought to the end and I’m happy with that. Obviously not ideal how we went out but I’m happy with how they played all season and even today.”
The loss ended an impressive turnaround season for West Branch which finished with a winning record for the first time since its last state tournament appearance in 2012.
West Branch hadn’t won more than 12 gams in a season since 2012 and surpassed its win total from the previous two seasons combined with a its win in the substate final.
“It’s huge for baseball in West Branch,” Bridges said. “It’s not something that we are used to but it’s something that I think the town should get used to with all the young people here and the support of the community it’s definitely a possibility.”
There is plenty of reason for optimism moving forward.
West Branch returns six starters including its top two pitchers in Eagle and Paulsen and four of its top four hitters from this season return.
“It’s a big stepping stone for this program, there are a lot of young guys,” Eagle said. “Our seniors did a great job for laying the foundation but there are a lot of young guys coming up that are going to do really well.”
West Branch 000 010 0 – 1 4 2
North Linn 600 110 x – 8 8 0
W – Jake Hilmer (14-2) L – Matt Paulsen (4-3)
2B – NL: Austin Hilmer, Nathan McEnany
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