DES MOINES – Dennis Olejniczak has won 1,293 games in over a half-century as a prep baseball coach. If there was one you had to choose to best represent his phenomenal legacy, this would have been it.
OK, probably some hyperbole there. But this one was at least in the conversation.
“The kids competed every out, every putout,” Olejniczak said, proudly, after Decorah outlasted Benton Community in nine innings, 5-3, in a wonderful Class 3A state tournament quarterfinal Tuesday night at Principal Park. “We weren’t trying to make it that interesting. We would have liked to have one in seven innings. But the real, real good thing about this win, which gives us more opportunity to play more baseball, is that our kids competed. They competed on the mound, they competed with the bat to scratch some runs, and we really played solid defense.”
Otherwise known as “Decorah baseball.” The Vikings (27-10) play Sioux City Heelan (35-10) in a 3A semifinal Friday afternoon at 2.
Contrarily, it was an extremely difficult way to end a renaissance-like season at Benton. The Bobcats sent the game to extra innings on Jake Stenberg’s two-out RBI single in the bottom of the seventh.
“It was a great ballgame,” said Benton coach Derek Anderson. “It would have been a tough one to lose either way. Decorah battled, and I’m really proud of our kids. We kept battling back until the last out.”
A Stenberg sacrifice fly in the first and Jonny Frese RBI single in the second gave Benton Community an early edge. Decorah pieced together three runs in the fifth against starting pitcher Mitch Moser, with run-scoring singles from Jacob Kvale and Josey Jewell and a two-out bases-loaded walk from Collin Nimrod.
Southpaw Landon Ashbacher was one of the biggest stories of the game, coming on in the second to relieve Jewell and throwing 6 2/3 innings of terrific baseball. He kept Benton’s potent offense off balance and off the scoreboard.
“I knew that if I had to come in, I had nothing to lose,” he said. “I looked at it completely different than last week (in a substate final) against Clear Lake. I just threw what I knew how to throw. We hit the ball. I give a lot of credit to our offense.”
Moser’s fourth hit of the game, a single to center, led off the Benton seventh. He was bunted to second, went to third on a groundout and scored the tying run when Stenberg lined a 1-1 Ashbacher pitch into right field.
He was the tournament’s top RBI guy coming in with 60.
“After we tied it up, I was thinking that if we got out of that (top of the eight) scoreless, we’d win that game,” Stenberg said.
The Bobcats got out of top of the eighth unscathed, but went in order in the bottom of the inning. Decorah loaded the bases with two outs against losing pitcher Jonny Frese (9-1), with Kyle Kane following with a grounder toward the left-side hole that Benton third baseman Jacob Germann got a glove on but couldn’t field cleanly.
Kane’s hit was followed by another hit, literally, as pinch hitter Austin Ashbacher was plucked in the shoulder by a Frese pitch that provided huge insurance. Blake Moen relieved Landon Ashbacher and got Benton 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth, and that was it.
The teams each had 10 hits and played errorless baseball.
“We just had to know we could come back again (in extra innings), just like we did earlier in the game,” Jewell said. “That’s what we did.”
“This season has been a huge jump for our baseball program,” Moser said. “I think it was 2009 the last time we were here. Our baseball program took a drop after that, but our coaching staff has really picked it back up. Guys want to be here, and that’s good.”
Here is the game boxscore and a short video interview with Jewell: