Vermillion's VFW 15-16 Teeners were in trouble in their Region 1A tournament opener in Elk Point Monday night, on the verge of dropping into the losers' bracket and then having to play every night this week to get to the championship round, a terrible challenge for anybody's pitching staff.
But persistence paid off, the Teeners suddenly got healthy off Elk Point-Jefferson's relief pitchers, and the stunning turn of events saw Vermillion, trailing 8-5 with only two at-bats left, win by 15-8 to advance to Tuesday's second round against Beresford.
In that one, Vermillion prevailed again, 5-2, using gutsy pitching from starter Collin Bertram and reliever Joe Mazour to move into a Thursday night date with Canton or Dakota Valley. Heading into that contest, Vermillion needed one win to reach the state tournament and two wins for the regional title. The Region 1A champ and runner-up both advance to the state classic in Flandreau Aug. 11-13.
In Monday's opener, a three-run top of the sixth, highlighted by Brock Zeller's two-run blast into the left-field trees, had lifted EP-J into an 8-5 lead, and when Vermillion's first batter in the bottom of that inning struck out, the team was down to its last five outs. But figuratively speaking, lightning struck from out of the blue, and the next 13 Vermillion batters reached base.
It all began when Colin Olson on an 0-2 pitch lofted a hit over the reach of the left-side infielders. When the next two batters were hit with pitches, it was clutch time for Chayse Meierkort, and did he deliver! The catcher laced a double up the gap in left, clearing the bases and tying the game in a flash. Seconds later, Nile Morecraft singled to left, and Vermillion had a 9-8 lead. After Collin Bertram worked a walk, Jayce Huska likewise stepped up at crunch time, singling home two runs for insurance.
Joe Mazour singled, and with runners at the corners, the EP-J first-baseman let a soft pop-up in fair territory near the bag bounce out of his glove and roll toward the outfield. Huska and Mazour scored. After Olson was hit with a pitch, Tanner Anderson applied frosting to the cake with a two-run single up the middle.
EP-J tried to start a rally in the top of the seventh with two leadoff hits. With one out Zeller was walked intentionally to load the bases, and the strategy worked big-time. The next batter bounced softly to pitcher Huska, who threw to the plate for a force out. Catcher Meierkort didn't quit on the play, firing a strike to first base to nab the batter and end the game.
It wasn't Meierkort's first defensive gem by any means. Earlier he had picked a runner off third base to end the top of the fifth when EP-J had taken a 5-3 lead and was threatening for more. Anderson, who applied the tag at third, had a defensive highlight earlier when his diving catch of a falling blooper ended an inning and prevented a run. Tanner Settles cleanly fielded four bouncers to shortstop, the last time starting a double play in the sixth after EP-J had taken its final lead.
Anderson's speed had paid off on offense twice early. In the first inning his grounder to third was fired wildly to first, and T.A. reached second from where he scored on a sacrifice bunt by Settles and Meierkort's sacrifice fly. To lead off the third Anderson hit what appeared to be an innocent single up the middle, but his hit had so much mustard on it that it rolled all the way up the gap to the fence, giving Anderson a triple. He scored a minute later on a Settles grounder.
Leading by only 3-2 in the bottom of the fourth, Vermillion loaded the bases with nobody out but failed to score. When EP-J immediately took the lead thereafter, it appeared that failed opportunity might come back to haunt Vermillion, but the late-inning developments took care of that worry.
Mazour, Meierkort and Anderson had two hits each of Vermillion's 10. Meierkort had four RBIs, Anderson two, Huska two, and Settles, Morecraft and Mazour one apiece.
Morecraft pitched three innings and Huska four. Although they gave up 16 hits, they worked out of numerous jams and stranded 11 runners. And each time EP-J worked itself into a lead, Vermillion had a rally waiting. The winners, in fact, trailed three times before winning comfortably.
In Tuesday's Beresford game Vermillion never trailed, scoring single runs in five different innings, but the lead was never large enough to be called comfortable. The plan was for Bertram to pitch only four innings, thus saving him for duty later in the tournament. He shut down Beresford over that span on only three hits with three strikeouts and no walks. The only threat came in the second when the first two men reached base, but Bertram got two strikeouts and a foul pop-up to Morecraft near first base to get out of danger.
Meanwhile, the offense nickel-and-dimed Beresford. In the first inning Settles singled, and Meierkort crushed an RBI double up the gap. In the second with two out the Nos. 8 and 9 men in the batting order stepped up � Peter Haught singled, and Colin Olson drove a blast to the base of the wall in left to make it 2-0. In the third it was Meierkort again, this time tripling into the right-field corner and immediately scoring on Olson's RBI double.
Things got a bit shaky in the fifth when Mazour took to the mound, but it wasn't his doing. A leadoff double dropped among three men in short centerfield, and a single followed. Mazour got the next two batters to ground into force plays, one of them scoring a run. When Logan Hunter doubled, his ball got past an outfielder to let another run home. Hunter on second base was then the potential tying run, but Meierkort, just as he had done the night before, threw out a man at third as Hunter tried to steal, ending the inning with a 3-2 Vermillion lead.
A crucial insurance run came in the fifth when Settles reached second on a wild infield throw. After he was wild-pitched to third, the surest best in the house was that the next batter, Meierkort, would deliver, and he did, sending a drive curling away from the center-fielder to score Settles, and it was 4-2.
A single and an infield error gave Beresford two runners in the sixth, but Mazour bore down again, getting a fly to center and a comebacker to the mound to set Beresford down. Just what the doctor ordered was another insurance run, and in the bottom of the inning it was Haught again, this time doubling with two out. Two batters later Anderson's pop-up was dropped by a Beresford infielder, allowing Haught to score a gift run that Vermillion gleefully accepted.
Mazour didn't fool around in the top of the seventh, retiring the first batter on a called third strike, then getting a pop-up to first and a grounder to short to end the game. Neither Mazour nor his predecessor, Bertram, walked nor hit a single batter, a major factor in their staying out of trouble.
Meierkort had three hits and two RBIs, Morecraft and Haught two hits each.
The regular-season finale at Tabor last Thursday was nothing to write home about and was fortunately not a precursor of things to come in the tournament. After a 3-0 lead gained in the top of the first inning, Vermillion was off to a good start. However, by the time the Teeners came to bat to start the third, they trailed 16-5.
Tabor put together a 10-run first on four hits, five walks, a balk, a hit batter, and an error even though starter Chayse Meierkort struck out the side. Vermillion got two runs back in the second on a two-run hit by Meierkort to trail only 10-5 and still have a chance at a win, but Tabor answered with a six-run second that included three Vermillion errors.
Bertram singled, advanced on a Huska hit and scored on a wild pitch for Vermillion's sixth run in the fifth, and the game ended 19-6 after 4 1/2 innings.
The "B" game also went Tabor's way, 7-4. Damarius Cheeseman, Seth Heine and Joe Mazour had the only three Vermillion hits in the game.