Vermillion has claimed state baseball championships at other levels, including 13-14 Teeners and American
Legion, both just two years ago. But there had never been a 15-16 Teeners state title brought home until now.
Completing a perfect seven-game sweep of regional and state tourney games, Vermillion captured the VFW state "A" Teeners crown with an agonizingly tense 4-2 win over host Flandreau Sunday night after earlier disposing of Groton, 7-2, and Parkston, 8-3.
Anyone who says baseball lacks the drama of other sports wasn't in Flandreau's ballpark as the championship game reached its zenith. Vermillion's lead was two runs, but Flandreau had the tying runs at the corners with two out and the winning run at the plate. There was no margin for error as Collin Bertram, knowing full well his teammates and coaches depended on him to fulfill his role as the big-game guy of the pitching staff, fought to get the final out.
Some 60 Vermillion fans alternately chewed fingernails, nervously twiddled fingers and tapped feet, paced behind the bleachers and wiped sweat from their brows. Fortunately the people maintaining their composure were the nine players on the field.
The bottom of the seventh had begun with Flandreau's Dakota Peterson lacing a laser shot off third-baseman Tanner Anderson and into left field, bringing the tying run to bat, but Bertram for the sixth time in the game set down a Flandreau batter on a called third strike for one out. The state title was two outs away.
Bertram got the jump on leadoff man Mitch Foster, who eventually flied deep to center-fielder Pete Haught. One out to go!
Bertram took Dave Parsley to a full count, needing one strike for the championship. Parsley's groundball appeared to be turning into a game-ending force at second base, but the ball trickled through for an error, sending runners to the corners.
The meat of the Flandreau batting order was at hand. Burly catcher Jake Patterson was at the plate representing the game-winning run as Bertram went back to work. He slid a strike past Patterson, then tempted him with a pair of pitches outside. A foul ball made it strike two, and again the championship was a mere strike away.
Patterson got a piece of it but only a piece and his batted ball went straight up into the air. It curved into foul territory in front of the Vermillion dugout as Bertram, catcher Chayse Meierkort and first-baseman Nile Morecraft circled under it. When it finally came down firmly into Bertram's glove, the championship was won, and a dogpile of players ensued.
For the first time in 20 minutes five dozen Vermillion fans exhaled.
The one-two punch of Collin Bertram and Nile Morecraft worked again for Vermillion in the opening game of the tournament as it had during the previous week's regional. Bertram worked only four innings so he would be available again later in the weekend, striking out five, walking two, allowing four hits and one earned run. Morecraft pitched the final three innings, striking out four, walking none, allowing three hits and one earned run.
Flawless defense marked the 7-2 win over Groton. With strikeouts accounting for nine of Groton's 21 outs, the other 12 included some particularly key defensive gems:
Bertram himself picked a runner off first base in the first inning.
With Canton threatening in the third with runners at the corners and one out, third-baseman Tanner Anderson snared a soft pop-up on the infield grass and doubled off a man at first base for an inning-ending twin-killing.
In the sixth left-fielder Pete Haught hustled to snare the ball on a hit, holding Canton's leadoff man to a single when it appeared a double was likely. That set the table for a made-to-order ground-ball double-play on the very next pitch, a double play that would not have been possible without Haught's play.
Leadoff man Anderson three times started an inning, and all three times he reached base and scored. Just for good measure, in his fourth at-bat he also reached base and scored.
In the first he reached on an infield error and scored on Chayse Meierkort's sacrifice fly. With the score 1-1 Vermillion went up 2-1 in the third when Anderson's leadoff single and subsequent stolen base were followed by Meierkort's RBI double.
Canton threatened a big inning in the fourth, putting men at the corners with none out. But Bertram finished triumphantly, striking out the next two batters and getting his last one on an outfield fly.
Morecraft immediately took charge when he relieved to start the fifth, striking out the side. That momentum carried over to the offense. Another leadoff Anderson hit and stolen base, plus a catcher's throwing error failing to get him at second base, put T.A. on third from where he scored on a wild pitch. Two walks then set the stage for the game's biggest hit, a two-run double by Bertram.
Vermillion added two insurance runs in the sixth on Haught's single, Colin Olson's sacrifice bunt, Anderson's RBI triple and Tanner Settles' sacrifice fly.
Vermillion's pitchers continued to rise to the occasion Saturday night in an 8-3 win over Parkston in the semifinals. Joe Mazour was tabbed as starter and threw the first two innings, starting and ending with strikeouts. He got Parkston in order in the first. A leadoff single and the team's first error of the tourney got him in a spot of trouble in the second as a double and a sacrifice fly gave Parkston a short-lived 2-1 lead.
Nile Morecraft had a dynamite start to his four innings of middle relief, striking out the side in the third after Vermillion had taken a 4-2 lead in the top half of the inning. Parkston got one back on back-to-back singles, but the game's best defensive play nailed a runner at third base. Right-fielder Colin Olson fielded a single and relayed the ball to second-baseman Jayce Huska whose throw to third-baseman Tanner Anderson was a strike to nab the oncoming runner.
Morecraft then retired seven of the last eight batters he faced, including getting Parkston in order in the sixth. Anderson, pitching the seventh, gave up two leadoff singles but recorded two strikeouts with an outfield fly in between them to end the game and put Vermillion into the finals.
Ten of Parkston's 21 outs came on strikeouts.
As leadoff man on offense, Anderson continued an amazing tournament, for the second night in a row reaching base all four times he batted. His streak at scoring every time he reached base finally ended at seven.
His first-inning double, a passed ball and Tanner Settles' grounder gave Vermillion a 1-0 lead before the game was five minutes old.
After falling behind 2-1, Vermillion regained control with a three-run third. Olson's single, Anderson's RBI triple and a walk to Settles gave Chayse Meierkort the hero's opportunity, and he came through with a two-run single.
A two-run fourth was ignited by Pete Haught's single and Olson's sacrifice bunt. Anderson (surprise!) singled home Haught and stole second, putting himself into scoring position in case something happened. And it did. Settles' ground ball was mishandled, scoring Anderson.
Hits by Huska and Mazour and a grounder by Haught produced another run for a 7-3 lead in the fifth. Settles reached base on a fielder's choice in the sixth and scored on another Meierkort RBI single for Vermillion's final run.
Anderson had four of Vermillion's 12 hits, Meierkort and Huska two apiece, and the top trio in the batting order—Anderson, Settles, Meierkort—each drove in two runs.
It was a testy game so far as the umpiring crew was concerned as the men in blue needed several conferences to get rulings straight. Even though every questionable call went against them, the Vermillion team ignored the nonsense and stayed focused on the goal at hand, reaching Sunday's title tilt.
In the end, Sunday's grand finale came down to one team making more plays than the other did.
Flandreau infielders committed four errors, all of which figured in three Vermillion runs. A trademark of this Vermillion team all summer has been the ability to put the ball into play and force the opponent to make plays. Many times they could not, and in this game when it mattered most, that was again the case.
On the other hand, while charged with a pair of miscues themselves, the Vermillion defenders made big-game plays. Starter Collin Bertram retired Flandreau in order in the first, the final out coming on a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch by center-fielder Pete Haught as he raced toward the fence. Right-fielder Colin Olson had only one fly come his way, but he made a catch worthy of "SportsCenter", risking life and limb as he tumbled and rolled but held on to the ball. The very next batter walked, but Bertram promptly played the hero's role by picking the guy off first with room to spare.
Haught in center had three other fly-ball catches. Joe Mazour in left had three.
Flandreau hurler Mitch Hansen pitched more than well enough win on any night when the defense behind him was perfect. After Vermillion scored twice in the top of the first, Hansen at one stretch retired nine men in a row.
Anderson started the game with a hit, his eighth of the tournament. A passed ball got him to second, and Meierkort's hit moved him to third. From there he scored on Nile Morecraft's fielder's choice. Morecraft got to third on the first Flandreau error and scored on the second one.
The bottom of the fourth began with the first two hits off Bertram. A walk loaded the bases with none out. Two successive outfield flies tied the score, then Tanner Anderson at third base speared a hot smash to end the inning with Flandreau's potential lead run in scoring position.
Another trait of these state champs all summer was going right back to work when the opponent had rallied. No sooner had Flandreau tied the game at 2-2 but Olson, perhaps the most dangerous ninth-spot batter anywhere around, deposited a solid double deep into the left-field corner. Anderson, who two innings earlier had been retired for the first time in the tournament after reaching base safely nine straight times, wasn't about to make another out. His sharp ground ball was thrown away by the shortstop, sending Olson home with what would prove to be the winning run and moving Anderson to third. An out later, Meierkort's ground ball was misplayed at second base, scoring Anderson for a 4-2 lead.
The lion-hearted Bertram walked two men in the bottom of the fifth, but he also struck out the side. Vermillion stranded two in the top of the sixth, and a two-out double by Flandreau in its half of the inning proved harmless. Hansen got Vermillion 1-2-3 in the top of the seventh, setting the stage for the gut-wrenching tension in Flandreau's last at-bat.
Bertram allowed only four hits, walked four and fanned six. Hansen walked none, fanned four and surrendered seven hits. It was a duel worthy of a state championship game.
State tourney notes: Vermillion pitchers struck out 25 and walked seven in 21 innings. Vermillion batters had 25 hits to the opponents' 18 Meierkort was the team RBI leader for the tourney with four. Anderson and Settles had three each, Morecraft and Bertram two each and Haught one. Of the team's 25 hits Anderson had eight, going 8-for-12 as a hitter but reaching base 11 times and scoring nine times. Haught was 4-of-9. Olson, Bertram and Meierkort had three hits each, Huska two and Mazour one.