History shifted for both teams in Tuesday’s A7 District championship at Bill Wood Field in North Platte.
For top-seeded Hastings Five Points Bank, a string of late-game heroics led to a 6-5 victory, which not only ended Kearney’s 14-year reign as district champs, but allowed Hastings to hoist the district title trophy for the first time since 1992.
Facing elimination after losing to Hastings 8-0 on Monday, Kearney Runza put Seth Stroh on the mound in hopes of forcing a second game.
And it worked early.
"We had a quality pitcher on the mound, and he pitched extremely well," Runza head coach Brad Archer said. "The big thing today was that we scored five in the first two innings and then not scoring any more runs the rest of the game. We had multiple opportunities, had bases loaded a couple of times and if we could have just gotten a couple of two-out hits we might have played a second game today."
While Stroh didn’t allow a hit through the first two innings for Kearney, Five Points Bank had to shuffle around a couple of pitchers of their own to slow down an aggressive Kearney offense.
After taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning, the scoring frenzy for Kearney began when Hastings’ Jacob Shaw loaded the bases in the second, giving up a Trey Rodriguez RBI single to center field. He then walked in two more runs before being replaced by Michael Shaw. Shaw inherited the bases loaded with one out, giving up an RBI to Corbin Foster for a 5-0 Kearney lead before retiring the side.
The slow start for Hastings on the mound called for some adjustments by head coach Kevin Asher, who went to his deep bullpen, utilizing five different pitchers to find an antidote for Kearney at the plate.
That formula began by replacing Shaw with Laif Hultine, who allowed four hits, but no runs through three innings before Riley Eckhardt relieved him in the top of the sixth with two outs.
Asher then turned to Joshua Brooks, who retired all three batters, two on strikeouts to hold Kearney at five.
"We’re sitting at five to nothing and not a whole lot was going right for us," Asher said. "You just have to tip your hat to our bullpen for battling and putting up some zeros. They weren’t easy zeros, but a competitor tries to get a zero at the mound every time."
Down 5-0 and without a hit going into the bottom of the third, the next task was finding consistency at the plate against Stroh. With two outs, Hastings’ first hit came on a single by Gabe Conant which opened the floodgates.
Ashton Valentine extended the inning with another hit, followed by a walk to load the bases. The first Hastings runs finally came on an infield error by Kearney on the following play, allowing two to cross the plate and trim Kearney’s lead to 5-2.
"Stroh is awfully good, and that was a big lift for them most of the game," Asher said. "But I thought we started to take a little bit better command at the plate from about the fourth inning on."
Stroh, who pitched five innings, allowing three earned runs on six hits, while recording five strikeouts, handed the ball off to Mason Casper with two runners on.
With Casper on the mound, Hastings tacked on another three runs to tie the game at 5-5 in the bottom of the sixth off a pair of wild pitches and four hits, including a sacrifice fly from Ashton Valentine.
Knotted at five apiece, an errant pitch from Casper hit Jacob Schroeder with bases loaded for the walk-off win to seal Hastings’ fate as 2019 A7 District champs.
Looking back on the 14-year title streak by Kearney, Archer credited the kids.
"(We’ve) had great kids go through our program, and we always seem to play well, especially late in the year," he said.
Both teams, however, will move on to one of the two Class A state tournaments next weekend. The American Division tournament will be hosted by Creighton Prep in Omaha, while the National Division tourney is in Kearney. Official pairings had not yet been released at press time.