HARTINGTON — It was fitting that the Class C, Area 1 American Legion Seniors baseball tournament would come down to the last at-bat.
“This team is famous for bringing it down to the wire,” Hartington coach Don Whitmire said. “We just like to take it to that wire.”
This time, it was Seth Wiebelhaus and Brady Steffen contributing the exclamation point. Steffen scored the lone run in a winner-take-all championship at Felber Park when he raced from second base and slid across home plate on a walk-off single by Wiebelhaus in the bottom of the seventh inning. That gave Hartington a 1-0 triumph over Ponca and punched its ticket to the Class C Seniors state tournament that begins Saturday in Syracuse.
“It's amazing,” Steffen said.
The defensive gem was a stunning turnaround from the way the day started, when Ponca scored six runs off three hit batters just two hits, two Hartington errors, and two walks — all in the bottom of the first inning — on its way to defeating Hartington 11-1 in five innings to force the winner-take-all championship.
Hartington will take a 17-11 record — 14-4 since catcher and cleanup hitter Jacob Keiser suffered a broken foot — into the state tournament. Ponca ends its season 14-13.
“The boys just refocused, played as a team and found ways to win,” Whitmire said. “Tonight, we found a way to win.”
Not only did Steffen score the lone run of game two, he was also the winning pitcher. He delivered a clutch complete-game shutout — his second straight complete-game shutout, to boot — scattering five hits and striking out five.
“I'll be honest, I was saving Brady in case we went to a second game, because he's a bulldog on the mound,” Whitmire said.
His defense helped out big-time as well, starting with first baseman Wiebelhaus who turned an unassisted double play in the first inning. Hartington's defense turned a groundout as Ponca stranded the bases loaded in the fourth, and the hosts got a 6-3-6 putout at second base after an error on the same play to end the sixth. Ponca left six runners on base in game two, but five of those were in scoring position.
“I kept the ball low and mixed my speeds,” Steffen said. “I tried to throw a fastball high and inside and a curveball low and away and get them on their toes, keep them guessing up there.”
Game two was a classic pitcher's duel that featured Steffen against Brandon Kneifl of Ponca. Both went the distance, and the biggest difference was Kneifl's back-to-back walks with one out in the seventh that ultimately decided the game.
“I thought our defense played excellent,” Ponca coach Reed McGill said. “Brandon pitched a good game. He pitches to contact and gets a lot of ground balls.”
With one out, eight of nine pitches were balls as Steffen and Chase Lammers took consecutive walks. That brought up Wiebelhaus, the No. 3 batter in the lineup who was without a hit all night. That is, until it counted most when he promptly smacked Kneifl's pitch through the infield.
“I saw an opportunity waiting to happen, I guess,” Wiebelhaus said. “I was just looking to get a base hit.”
Steffen slid into home uncontested to spark the celebration.
“I saw it get through the infield and I knew,” Steffen said. “I was just trying to be aggressive on the base paths and score.”
A scary situation happened in the sixth inning when Ponca catcher Gage McGill and third baseman Cayden Phillips collided in foul territory going after a fly ball. Phillips lay on the ground for several minutes before being helped up, and coach McGill said Phillips was later taken to a hospital to be evaluated for concussion symptoms.
IN GAME ONE, Ponca jumped all over Hartington after the hosts grabbed the early edge.
The first five Ponca batters reached and scored as part of a six-run first inning. A single, a hit batter and a walk loaded the bases before another hit batsman scored the first Ponca run.
Hunter Volkert hit a grounder toward third base, but the throw to try to get the force-out at home was wide and two Ponca runners scored. Another hit batter loaded the bases again, and No. 9 batter Cayden Phillips hit a RBI single into left, but a throwing error on the play cleared the bases and put Phillips at third base for a 6-1 Ponca lead.
The scoring explosion continued for Ponca in the second. Two singles and a hit batter loaded the bases, and a bobbled grounder brought two across before pinch-hitter Zach Fernau's two-run double into left center. Fernau came across on Phillips' single.
“I think they just got more and more confident,” coach McGill said. “Their pitcher was struggling, so they were more patient at the plate with what pitches to take and they hit pitches in the zone. They hit the ball well.”
That was all the scoring Ponca needed as Michael Logue allowed just three hits, and only one of those came before the fifth inning. Logue and the defense retired eight straight batters at one point and faced just two over the minimum until back-to-back singles in the fifth. He struck out three, hit one batter and walked none.
Hartington starting pitcher Sam Feilmeier took the loss, as he was chased before he could record an out. Ted Bengston was credited with five innings pitched, allowing seven hits and two earned runs.
“Teddy's thrown well for us. He beat Ponca 5-1 earlier this year,” Whitmire said. “He came in in a tough spot, but he was able to settle down and get those last four innings so we didn't have to bring in another pitcher.”
Class C, Area 1 tournament final
Hartington 100 00 — 1 3 3
Ponca 650 0X — 11 9 0
WP: Michael Logue. LP: Sam Feilmeier. 2B: (P) Zach Fernau. SB: (H) Brady Steffen 4, Feilmeier; (P) Gage McGill.
Ponca 000 000 0 — 0 4 4
Hartington 000 000 1 — 1 8 3
WP: Brady Steffen. LP: Brandon Kneifl. 2B: (P) Hunter Volkert. SB: (P) Evan Anderson, Michael Logue 2; (H) Steffen.