By Jon Gremmels Herald Sports Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — BETTENDORF – Kevin Cunningham had a vision recently. It was a number. The number was 25.
Ryan Driscoll had a vision, too. He saw himself pitching the final inning as Clinton High School wrapped up a berth in the baseball state tournament.
Both visions came true Wednesday night as Clinton beat host Bettendorf 10-3 in a Class 4A substate final to advance to next week’s state tournament in Des Moines. The River Kings will face second seed Ankeny in the quarterfinals at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.
“I don’t want to say I’m clairvoyant, but in my mind we were going to win 25 games,” Cunningham, Clinton’s second-year coach, said. “So I started doing the math, and we’re at 22 coming into substate. I had seen visually in my head 25 wins, so I thought let’s win those three substate games, gets me our 25th win and gets us to state. That’s what happened.”
Driscoll’s vision came true when Cunningham pulled freshman starter Cole Pennock after six solid innings and brought Driscoll in for the seventh.
“I’ve wanted to close this game for so long,” Driscoll said. “I envisioned it all since our last game against (Dubuque) Senior. I envisioned closing it out and hugging the catcher and the crowd going crazy. That’s exactly what happened.”
There were a few anxious moments, though, as Bettendorf loaded the bases with two walks and a single. But, after each of those batters reached base, Driscoll recorded a strikeout. The last one – when umpire Paul Keitel raised his fist for a called third strike on Bettendorf’s Andrew Fitzgerald – was one Driscoll will cherish.
“The best feeling I ever had in my life,” he said. “Up on the mound – after that kid (Austin Broyles) got a hit, I had two strikes on the next guy up,(and) I said, ‘This is the pitch; this is the pitch that is going to send us to state,’ and I hit my spot and there is no greater feeling than that feeling right there.”
Especially for Driscoll and the other seniors on the team: starting second baseman Cody Collender, starting shortstop Cody Nolan, Rodney Witherspoon, John Gunderson and Trey Franks.
“It’s kind of hard to talk because I’m choking back tears, but it’s magical, the greatest experience I’ve ever had, getting the chance to go to state,” said Collender, a three-year starter. “Me and Ryan, we’ve been best friends since … a long time. We always talked about we were going to make it to state our senior year.
“We always wanted to, and we wanted to work hard and we finally did it. Honestly, at the beginning of the year, the middle of the year, I didn’t think, maybe we weren’t going to make it, but now we’re here, it’s unbelievable; I can’t believe we did this, but I know we earned it and we can go far.”
The River Kings did it despite getting outhit 9-6. But, they took advantage of 11 walks and six Bettendorf errors, jumping on the Bulldogs right away and not letting up.
The tone was set on the fourth pitch, when Dustin Caldwell reached on second baseman Brett Malsam’s error. Jake Faur moved him up with a sacrifice bunt, then Caldwell came around to score when third baseman Sam Ambrose couldn’t handle Collender’s sizzler right to him, then into left field.
“Coach always talks to us about how we like to get ahead first so we don’t have to put the pressure on us, so it was really big with that first run,” Collender said. “Finally breaking it open in that third inning with four really helps us a lot. It’s better to be up 5-0 than down 5-0.”
Once again, the top of the order got things going in the third, but the bottom half – with three straight varsity newcomers – provided back-to-back-to-back daggers. And two more errors prolonged the misery for the Bulldogs.
Caldwell walked and advanced to second on a botched pickoff attempt. One out later, Collender was walked intentionally, then Nolan hit a grounder to Ambrose, who made several attempts to pick up the ball but couldn’t as Caldwell slid in safely, loading the bases.
Justin Hill replaced Kris Klabunde on the mound and struck out Driscoll, but Jordan Chapman and Murray Henricks walked on 3-2 pitches to force in runs, and Evan Jackson delivered a run-scoring single on a 1-2 pitch to make it 4-0.
Chapman and Henricks prlonged their plate appearances by fouling off 2-2 pitches.
“I just knew that I had to do my job and put the ball in play or get the walk and get the run in,” Chapman said. “I couldn’t leave the bases loaded in that time of the game. You can’t swing at the balls; you have to swing at the strikes.”
Henricks added: “I just planned on doing my job, getting the ball down. I didn’t want to leave anybody out there.”
Jackson said: “I guess I just knew what I had to do – I had to execute. I had two strikes on me. He had to put the ball somewhere, and it worked out and went right up the middle. That was a big inning.”
Cunningham was not surprised to see his Nos. 6, 7 and 8 hitters produce, though.
“Our lineup, I think, from top to bottom, I feel pretty comfortable with it,” Cunningham said. “We’ve had our batting order set now for probably the last 10 games, and I’m pretty comfortable with it right now. We get guys on base, and we seem to get timely hits. We’re a very patient team, a disciplined team at the plate. … They walked us 10 times tonight, and that helps tremendously when we’re not getting clean hits.”
Indeed, through three innings the River Kings had five runs and just one hit. They added the final run of the inning on a wild pitch.”
Clinton pushed the lead to 7-0 an inning later on a hit, two walks, another error that scored a run and an RBI single by Henricks.
Bettendorf started to chip away after that, scoring one run each in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, but by then it was too late.
“That run support was key,” Clinton freshman left-hander Cole Pennock said. “That was the number one thing that I loved about this game.”
Pennock wasn’t at his best – he issued two four-pitch walks in the first two innings.
“I actually didn’t have my best stuff,” he said. “On those walks on four pitches I was overthrowing because of the big game, all the pressure and everything.”
If the run support was No. 1 for Pennock, the defense behind him had to be a close second.
The first two Bettendorf batters reached base in the bottom of the first, but a 6-4-3 double play got Pennock out of trouble. He helped himself in the second by spearing a line drive and starting another double play. And the Bulldogs threatened again in the third with a leadoff single and a two-out hit batter.
That time, third baseman Caldwell made a diving stop to rob Matt Albert of a hit down the line, got up and dived again to touch third base for the inning-ending forceout.
“It was a good hit, and I made a good play, and once we got the out, the lost their mental toughness,” Caldwell said.
“Dustin Caldwell, to me that was the play of the game; that was huge,” Cunningham said. “That kept the momentum with us.”
Clinton athletic director Gary Lueders, who had been chatting with Cunningham after the game, added, “I was watching Jay (Fitzgerald, Bettendorf’s coach), and he kind of just dropped his head and turned.”
“He knew that was the play of the game,” Cunningham said.
“We had (two) errors, but I don’t think that really showed how good of a defense we actually have,” Collender said. “We made some huge plays: Dustin making a diving play at third, for one; Alex (Caldwell) making that play at the fence (a leaping catch for the first out of the fifth inning, the double plays – Cole’s double play – that’s like four right there. That definitely helped not letting them score as many runs as they did.”
If there was any doubt about the outcome, the River Kings erased it in the top of the seventh, batting around and adding three runs when Collender walked with the bases loaded and Nolan – who reached base all five times he stepped to the plate – followed with a two-run single.
“I think once we got those three additional runs – because they really shut us down after the third inning – I think I could finally relax,” Cunningham said. “I was a little more tense today than I am typically.”
He called on Driscoll to finish it off, and Pennock could relax, too.
“During the game there was a lot of pressure,” Pennock said. “At the last second, coach told me I wasn’t going back out for the seventh. That inning I was feeling the pressure, but when I knew Ryan Driscoll was going in, it was over; the pressure was completely gone. I knew we were taking this one.
“It’s the best feeling knowing that even if you’re not on your game you’ve got someone whose just as good as you as a closer coming in.”
Soon enough the celebration was under way.
Now, the River Kings can turn their attention to the state tournament and Ankeny. Cunningham, though, might want to find a crystal ball or a fortune teller to find out if the numbers 26, 27 and 28 are in the near future.
But even if 25 is as high as it goes, it will be a magic number these River Kings always will remember.
CLINTON 10, BETTENDORF 3
Clinton 104 200 3 – 0 6 2
Bettendorf 000 111 0 – 3 9 6
Cole Pennock (6 ip, 8 h, 3 r, 1 er, 2 bb, 5 so, 1 hbp), Ryan Driscoll (1 ip, 1 h, 0 r, 2 bb, 3 so) and Jake Faur; Kris Klabunde (2 1/3 ip, 0 h, 4 r, 0 er, 2 bb, 3 so, 1 hbp), Justin Hill (1 1/3 ip, 3 h, 3 r, 0 er, 5 bb, 3 so, 2 wp), Matt Ulrich (2 2/3 ip, 3 h, 3 r, 3 er, 4 bb, 3 so), Grant Spranger (2/3 ip, 0 h, 0 r, 0 bb, 1 so) and Matt Albert. Multiple hits – Clinton (Cody Nolan 2); Bettendorf (Klabunde 2, Matt Ulrich 2). 2B – Clinton (Dustin Caldwell). 3B – Bettendorf (Klabunde). RBIs – Clinton (Jordan Chapman, Murray Henricks 2, Evan Jackson, Cody Collender, Nolan 2); Bettendorf (Ulrich 2, Trey Muilenburg).
Photos and video Watch a video of Clinton's celebration at Clintonherald.com, and see a photo gallery from the game at Clintonherald.smugmug.com.