By Jay Rickertsen
For the Herald
DES MOINES —
It had all the makings of a mismatch.
A No. 2 seed against a No. 7 seed. A defending state champion against a school whose last state title was during the LBJ administration. A senior-dominated team against a team with just three seniors in the starting lineup. A team starting a senior on the mound against a team throwing a tall, lanky freshman to the wolves.
Clinton and Ankeny squared off Wednesday at Principal Park during the Iowa Class 4A baseball state tournament with the odds stacked heavily in Ankeny’s favor. Clinton pulled off the 10-8 upset, though, and advanced to the school’s first semifinal appearance since 1970. The River Kings had to endure a shaky sixth inning in which they surrendered five runs — four unearned — as the Hawks pulled within two runs.
“It feels really good to beat the defending state champions,” Clinton sophomore catcher Jake Faur said. “Especially in the first round. We were looked at as the underdog in this game, and we proved everybody wrong and came out and played Clinton baseball.”
Clinton coach Kevin Cunningham borrowed a quote from one of his seniors to express himself.
“To quote (senior outfielder and pitcher) Ryan Driscoll, ‘It’s somewhat surreal,’ “ Cunningham said “I knew we’d compete, and I knew my guys wouldn’t quit. I was somewhat surprised we had them down 8-0 at one point.”
The River Kings built that lead over the first two innings after freshman pitcher Cole Pennock faced just seven batters and the Clinton bats lit up Ankeny starter Nick Belzer for eight runs on seven hits through 1 2/3 innings.
“Getting this win is huge,” senior Cody Collender said. “Beating Ankeny in the first round of the playoffs is huge. It gives us so much momentum going into the second game.”
Clinton will now play Sioux City East at 8 p.m. Friday in a semifinal game. The Black Raiders defeated Cedar Rapids Xavier 1-0 to advance.
Pennock worked a perfect first inning with a popout, groundout and strikeout. The freshman used just eight pitches to retire the Hawks in the first.
“That was big,” Collender said. “To get those first three batters out and go and do our thing, that’s what gives us our momentum is getting those outs knowing they didn’t score.”
The River Kings got on the scoreboard in the first inning when Cody Nolan knocked in Jake Faur on an RBI groundout to the shortstop. Faur got on base with a single, then advanced on a Collender walk and a wild pitch.
“It felt great,” Pennock said of the early run. “I knew we had the bats behind me, and getting that run in the first was huge. As a pitcher, it’s the best feeling knowing you have run support. Run support is number one and defense is number two, and we had both those tonight.”
Pennock, who improved his season record to 11-3, allowed his first baserunner in the second when he walked Matt Johnson, but the freshman was able to work out of it with two strikeouts and a groundout.
Clinton did most of its damage in the bottom half of the second inning, when it plated seven to take an 8-0 lead.
“Game’s all about pressure — either you’re applying it or your receiving it,” Cunningham said of the lead “I knew we had them on the run a little bit.”
Murray Henricks, Evan Jackson, Alex Caldwell, Dustin Caldwell, Faur, Collender and Driscoll all scored during the barrage, with Dustin Caldwell, Faur, Collender, Driscoll and Jordan Chapman batting in the runs.
“We started off really hot and then after that we didn’t really play that great at all,” Driscoll said. “To stay persistent throughout the game and to win, that’s just River King baseball.”
Ankeny scored its first run in the top of the third and added two more runs in the fourth to get within five at 8-3.
Cunningham relieved Pennock with Faur during the fifth inning after the freshman had given up just six hits and three runs to the defending state champions.
“Pennock is a phenominal kid on and off the field,” Driscoll said of his young teammate. “He’s a great kid. We had so much faith in him. He’s going to do big things in life. He’s a good kid. We had confidence in him tonight.”
The River Kings added what turned out to be the winning run in the fifth when Jackson and Dustin Caldwell each scored on University of Arkansas recruit Keaton McKinney.
The Hawks mounted a furious rally in the sixth, scoring five runs and edging within two at 10-8. Ankeny had just one hit in the inning — a leadoff single — but took advantage of three errors, two wild pitches, a hit batter and three walks, two with the bases loaded.
Driscoll relieved Faur in the sixth inning and allowed a leadoff single to start the seventh but slammed the door on Ankeny’s hopes of a comeback by striking out three straight batters and giving Clinton its first state baseball tournament win since the 1970 quarterfinals. It is Clinton’s fifth trip to the state tournament.
“They got that leadoff single and I was like, ‘Here we go again,’ “ Driscoll said. “The fans were the real deal tonight. and they got behind me. I give them the win tonight.”
The impact of the win wasn’t lost on Collender.
“This will go down in Clinton High history,” he said. “We knew how good Ankeny is and that they won the state championship last year and they were the number two team coming in.”
Cunningham said the win was a product of a mindset his players share.
“I don’t want to say we’re naive — we knew what we were coming up against,” he said. “One of the things we’ve tried to instill in our kids is not to expect to win, but to deserve to win. Not from an entitlement standpoint, but deserve to win in that you leave everything out on the field.”
View photos from Wednesday's game.