PIERRE — Last season proved to be a hiccup for the Rapid City Post 22 American Legion baseball team.
The Hardhats failed to win their fifth straight state tournament then, but on Sunday they made five state titles in six years and 42 overall, defeating Mitchell 9-0 at Hyde Stadium.
For the players, coaches and fans, they are back where they belong.
“It’s an exciting feeling for all of us,” Post 22 center fielder Connor King said. “We just wanted to get back on top because last year was kind of a let-down year. We’re excited to move on to Dickinson and see how that goes.”
The late Hall of Fame coach Dave Ploof won 34 state titles; Mitch Messer, who stepped down after last season, won four, and Wes Storm won two.
First-year head coach Kelvin Torve, who played under Ploof, now has one championship to his credit as a coach.
“This tournament is a beating. It’s five or six games, it’s a long tournament," Torve said. "I can’t believe they did it as long as they did it. I hope I get used to it. It’s a grind and it’s stressful, but our guys didn’t play like that. They played energetic and confident, so it was fun to watch how they handled the tournament.”
In their five tournament wins, the Hardhats outscored their opponents 50-11.
“Obviously it is a big win,” shortstop Cooper Bowman said. “People didn’t expect us to do these kinds of things at the beginning of the year. We took that as a chip on our shoulder all year; it is a pretty big one for us.”
Post 22 scored single runs in four of the first five innings before exploding for five runs in the sixth. It was more than enough for starting pitcher Zach Sumption, who went the distance and tossed a dominating three-hit shutout.
“He (Sumption) always competes, and he did a great job today,” Bowman said. ‘We know that we don’t have to score a ton when he is pitching, but at the same time, we have been scoring in the bottom of the sixth inning all weekend, and that is something we have to change up in Dickinson. But with our pitching staff, we have full confidence.”
Going into Sunday, Mitchell would have had to beat the Hardhats twice to claim the title. There would be no second game, something Sumption said he didn't want any part of.
He said he took it as a winner-take-all game, like an elimination game.
"I didn’t want to make any mistakes that would jeopardize our chances. Who knows? If we lose this game, that second game could go any way," he said. "This game was bigger than the crowd thought; they thought we had two to get one, but really, we had one to get one. I came out really competitive and just threw strikes.”
Sumption walked just two batters, and they came in succession to begin the second inning.
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In that situation, Sumption said he was just trying to tell himself to not rush it, keep everything fluid and compete.
He did just that. The baserunners advanced to second and third on a sacrifice bunt, but were stranded there as he got out of the jam with a popup and a groundout.
“The bunt, we got an out of it and that is what we needed," he said. "I just had to do the small things. If they would have scratched something across the plate, I knew our offense would get going, and I wouldn’t have to worry too much.”
Possibly the next biggest key in the game came in the sixth inning when it appeared that Sumption would get out of a slight jam as he snagged a weak grounder with two outs, only to throw the ball away to right field. The baserunner — Brady Hawkins — dashed home but was gunned down by right fielder Holden Jackson to catcher Ryan Schmidt to preserve the shutout.
“It would have been a 4-1 game at the time, and if he doesn’t throw him out, they would have had a runner on at least second or third," Torve said. "That turned things around and it kind of woke us up a little bit. We swang the bats a little better after that.”
The Hardhats got on the board in the first inning on an RBI single by Jack Sorensen, scoring King, who had doubled. In the second, Alex Weaver doubled and would eventually score on a groundout by Schmidt. In the third inning Bowman hit a solo home run.
Mason Messinger, with Matthew Hegre on first, successfully executed a double steal from third to make it 4-0 in the fifth inning.
“We kind of struggled at the plate. We didn’t swing the bats well until the sixth inning," Torve said. "But what we did do is take advantage of the opportunities that we had. When you have a pitcher who is throwing strikes like that, it was going to be enough today."
Post 22 took advantage of a couple of Mitchell mistakes in the sixth to open things up as Jace Caldwell reached on an error and scored on a throwing error. Jackson then scored on the passed ball, followed by an RBI double by Hegre, and a two-run double by Bowman.
After winning 51 games last season but not getting past the second round at the state tournament, the Hardhats are 55-10 and heading to the Central Plains Regional that begins Wednesday in Dickinson, North Dakota.
“It’s amazing,” Sorensen said. “Towards the beginning of the season people were having doubts about our team. We took that to heart and took that as a challenge to come out and work as hard as we could all season long to prove them wrong, and we did that. We had a great season.”
Schmidt said they played as a team the whole season and were never down and always up with each other.
"This means a lot. We have to dream bigger now; we have to get ready for national regionals and see what we can do as a team," he said.
The Hardhats will face the Iowa state champion, Dubuque County, Wednesday in their first-round game at 1:30 p.m.
“We’re not satisfied yet. We want to go on to Dickinson and compete for another title,” King said. “I think we have a pretty good chance of winning it. We like to compete and we don’t ever give up. I think that will pay off if we put the hard work in.”