For three hours St. Thomas More had held the state Class "B" high school baseball title in its grasp. Every time Vermillion would creep closer, the Cavaliers would answer by regaining a three-run lead.
It is so trite to say that a game of baseball is never over till the last man is out, but it would also be correct to say that the Tanagers' chances were as grim and gloomy as the overcast sky that swept across the Sioux Falls Stadium Monday night. Vermillion was, quite frankly, on life support, and STM was about to pull the plug.
But the 21st out – the one St. Thomas More needed to clinch its championship – was the hardest one to get, and by the time STM had it, the never-say-die Tanagers had unbelievably tied the game with a miracle three-run rally.
At that moment the dark clouds moved away, sunshine returned, and a rainbow appeared, arching high seemingly out of the center-field scoreboard and into the heavens. To be sure, it was an omen of good things to come!
It took two gut-wrenching innings for it to happen, but VHS scored a run without the aid of a hit in the bottom of the ninth – the second extra inning – to win the state title, 8-7. The game was over, and it was the only time all night long the Tanagers were ahead.
The Tanagers had reached the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow, and inside it they found a state championship trophy.
The win was the 15th straight for VHS, concluding a fabulous 18-3 season, but of all those triumphs, none was more improbable, unlikely, or incredible as this one.
Vermillion trailed 3-0 at the very outset, got to within 3-1, then trailed 4-1, then 4-2, then 5-2, then 5-4 and finally 7-4. That was the score as the Tanagers approached their final at-bat in the bottom of the seventh.
The top of the order, D'Andre Fore, drew a walk, but shortly thereafter he was called out on a pickoff play at first base, one of several highly questionable calls at that location. A moment of hope was replaced by a sense of impending doom.
But Caleb Miller drew a walk. There came another glimmer of hope until he was forced out at second on a potential double-play ball that would have ended the game. Chayse Meierkort beat the throw to first, however, but the Tanagers, though still gasping for breath, were down to their last out.
Tanner Anderson drew a walk, and that was the end of Lincoln Feist, who had pitched since the second inning. Landon Kudrna came into pitch from his second-base position, needing only one out to finish off the Tanagers, perhaps a force at any base.
But glory be! Stormy Mirtz, on a 2-1 pitch, drove a gapper to the wall in left-center, scoring Meierkort and Anderson, and sending a large Vermillion contingent of fans into spasms of hysteria. Colin Olson was inserted to run for Mirtz, and it was up to Collin Bertram.
He was supposed to take the first pitch, but thankfully he didn't. He strategically placed a bloop hit over third base into no-man's-land, and Olson sped home to tie the game. As he soared around the bases, Bertram was the only one to notice that all of STM's defenders were either in left field chasing the ball or gathering at home plate. No one was covering third, so he reached there uncontested. The winning run was on third base, but Tanner Settles struck out to send the game to extra innings. But not to worry! He would have his moment two innings later.
As the rainbow appeared, reliever Meierkort, who had pitched since the sixth, walked two men after two were out in the STM eighth, but he got the third out on a line drive to Anderson's glove at third base. In the bottom of that inning VHS again threatened to win it as Jayce Huska walked with one out, stole second and went to third on Fore's grounder to shortstop. Again the winning run was 90 feet away, but Miller's ground ball to second ended that stanza.
The top of the ninth began ominously as STM got a leadoff single and a sacrifice bunt. But Meierkort came down off the mound to pounce on a come-backer to him, so quickly that he was able to catch the baserunner between second and third. He was tagged out in a rundown. But still more drama!
A single and a hit batter loaded the bases. STM had a chance to blow it open, but batter Feist hit the ball weakly into fair territory less than halfway to the mound. Meierkort fielded the ball, flipped to catcher Huska for the force at home plate to end the potential disaster.
Credit Meierkort with igniting the hitless – but victorious – rally in the bottom of the ninth. He fought off several potential third strikes with foul balls, and on the 10th pitch from Kudrna, he drew a walk.
Bunting is a key element in the VHS offensive scheme of things, and it fell upon Anderson to come through. He did, sacrificing Meierkort to second base. A passed ball moved him on to third, and there for the third straight inning stood the winning run, waiting, begging, pleading to be brought home.
Options were few for STM, so the Cavaliers chose to walk Mirtz intentionally. The drama level increased as STM made another pitching change, and the new hurler never had a chance to locate home plate because he was forced to throw four bad pitches as Bertram was also walked intentionally to load the bases.
Here came Settles with another chance to win it, and this time he did so without lifting the bat from his shoulder. Ball 1. Ball 2. Ball 3. The next pitch was almost surely to be called an automatic Strike 1, but instead it was Ball 4. Meierkort gleefully skipped down the line and jumped onto home plate. The Tanagers surrounded him for a state championship dogpile.
STM scored three times in the first off starter Nate Garrett and once more in the second before Nile Morecraft relieved. He gave up a lone run in the third but then kept STM scoreless until surrendering three hits in the sixth. Meierkort came in to pitch. His first pitch was wild, allowing a second Cavalier run to score in that stanza, but then he successfully maneuvered his way out of trouble, stranding a runner there, two more in the seventh, two in the eighth and three in the ninth. Living dangerously? Yes. But getting the job done? Yes.
Meanwhile, VHS got a first-inning run on an RBI single by Meierkort and a second-inning tally when Joe Mazour was hit with the bases loaded. A gift run in the third came when Miller scored from second base when Feist tried to pick him off that bag but threw when nobody was covering the base. Mazour was hit again in the fourth and eventually scored on an RBI hit by Fore. At that point VHS was within 5-4, but STM's two runs in the sixth made it a three-run deficit yet again, and as the game wore on, hope dwindled until the seventh-inning two-out miracle.
STM had 12 hits but stranded 15 men on base. Vermillion's pitching committee worked its way into several crisis situations but weasled out most times with minimal damage, keeping their team within striking distance. Morecraft, for example, during his four innings of work, fielded his position beautifully. Twice he threw out advancing runners, once at third base, once at second. Meierkort also secured outs on three plays he fielded.
The Tanagers managed only seven hits, two of them by Bertram, but found numerous other ways to score runs. As the big trophy proves, each run counts, whether earned or unearned, pretty or dirty. And one other thing it proves is that the only time it really matters whether you're ahead is at the end of the game.
Vermillion players and fans can relive the whole experience – the three hours of agony and the 30 minutes of ecstasy – when Midco Sports Net broadcasts the game on television from 2:30 to about 5:45 p.m. Sunday. We guarantee the result will be the same, and here is another certainty – it will be just as unbelievable the second time around.
VHS 2, Milbank 0
It's a strategy that has worked before – give Collin Bertram the ball, send him to the mound and get out of his way.
Realizing that they couldn't compete in the state championship game without first winning their semifinal, that's what the Tanagers did Monday morning. On the biggest stage of the season, Bertram once again was equal to the challenge. He hurled a one-hit gem as he and VHS took only 80 minutes to defeat Milbank, 2-0.
Bertram accounted for 11 of the 21 Milbank outs through strikeouts, and he walked none.
Momentum swung in Vermillion's direction in the very first inning. Milbank's Jesse Peschong appeared to have doubled up the gap in left-center and reached third as the return throw got away in the infield. But the Tanagers appealed that Peschong had missed the bag as he rounded first base, and they were right. Inning over. Threat over.
Bertram cruised through the second, third and fourth innings, retiring Milbank in order.
With VHS leading 1-0, Milbank's Matt Steffen led off the fifth with a double, his team's lone hit of the game. With two out he advanced to third base on a deep outfield fly. But Bertram struck out the next batter to end that threat. He then retired Milbank in order the rest of the way.
There are occasions when Bertram pitches that some of his teammates on defense never touch the baseball. However, on this day everybody except shortstop Tanner Settles had to make at least one play on defense. Left-fielder Nate Garrett and right-fielder Joe Mazour each had to corral fly balls with which a stiff northwest breeze was playing tricks. Third-baseman Tanner Anderson and second-baseman Stormy Mirtz each had a pop fly and a grounder to take care of. First-baseman Caleb Miller also had to circle under a pop fly on the infield as well as handle the throws on the two infield grounders. Behind the plate Chayse Meierkort had the best view of it all, catching everything Bertram threw his way.
And then there was D'Andre Fore in center field. Minutes after the Tanagers had put an insurance run on the board in the bottom of the sixth, Milbank came up for its last at-bat, and Bertram had to face the meat of the batting order – positions 2, 3 and 4. Adam Jones drove his ball toward right-center. It had "two-base-hit" written all over it except that Fore sped to his left, dived and caught the ball.
A fly to Garrett in left and a pop fly behind second base that Fore caught ended the game.
The Tanagers had a two-out first-inning hit from Meierkort, who stole second but was stranded there.
The first run was one the Tanagers manufactured once leadoff man Mirtz was hit soundly in his back with a pitch from Steffen. He was wild-pitched to second base. Bertram himself laid down a gorgeous bunt to sacrifice Mirtz on to third, and Settles put the ball in play on a grounder to second base that scored Mirtz.
Vermillion had a two-out single from Miller in the third, and Mirtz was safe on an infield error with one out in the fourth, but neither could score.
The sixth-inning insurance run was scored by Miller, who singled with one out and went to second on a wild pitch. With two out Anderson drove a ball high off the left-field wall to make it 2-0. This hit by Anderson, Meierkort's hit earlier, and Miller's two base knocks were the only four off Steffen, who struck out three and also walked none.
In the three postseason games Bertram pitched – 2-1 over Dakota Valley and 1-0 over Bon Homme/Scotland in the regional and this game – he allowed one run, five hits and two walks while striking out 24. His team scored only five times in the three games, but that was enough because not only was Bertram on the mound doing his thing but also the Tanager defense played error-free ball in all three contests.