When Preston’s Andrew Driscoll stepped on home plate with the winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning Thursday night, the thud of his foot hitting the rubber slab might have sounded like church bells at a funeral for the East Central baseball players and fans.
It was a death knell for the high school just beyond the right-field fence.
Preston scored twice in its final at-bat to rally for a 5-4 victory that sent it on to Saturday’s 7 p.m. Iowa Class 1A District 7 championship at Calamus-Wheatland. For the Raiders, however, it was more than a season-ending loss. The school is closing, and when classes start again in the fall, most of the high school students will head off to either Preston or Northeast, neighboring school districts.
“It was probably pretty emotional for them, but it’s big for us,” Preston junior shortstop Jason Feddesen said of the rivalry of the two schools separated by about 5 miles along Highway 64. “It’s fun to come over here and play these guys because it’s always close and they always give us a game.”
For a while it appeared the Raiders might just hand the Trojans (20-11) a season-ending loss and prolong their school’s sports history at least two more days.
East Central (11-13) had battled back from a 2-0 deficit in the first inning and taken a 4-3 lead when junior pitcher Austin Daniels belted an opposite-field, two-run home run over the right-field fence in the top of the sixth inning.
“It makes you wonder,” Preston coach Mark Bormann said of the feelings running through his mind when Daniels homered. “It just makes you wonder. Maybe it is their night. But our kids never quit.”
The prospects looked even better when Daniels struck out cleanup hitter Alex Hinerichsen for the final out in the bottom half of the sixth inning to preserve the lead with runners on the corners.
The Raiders just had to make it through one more inning against the bottom half of the batting order, a quintet of players who had a combined two hits and one walk in 15 previous plate appearances on the night.
“They had the five, six and seven men coming up, and we had gone through the heart of their lineup in the sixth, but you can’t let up with that group,” East Central coach Junior Miller said. “Every guy in that lineup can hit the ball. There was just no letting up to it, which they proved at the end there. They just kept coming at us.”
When Daniels recorded his 11th strikeout to open the seventh inning, the Raiders needed just two more outs. They never got one.
Colin Larson, who drove in Preston’s first two runs with a first-inning double, reached on an infield single that went behind Daniels and was stopped by a diving effort by shortstop Taylor Keeney behind second base.
“I should have had that; I didn’t have my reflexes ready for it,” Daniels said.
“It looked like he might be able to get to it,” Larson said. “I was just lucky it got through.”
Daniels quickly got ahead of Derek Meier 0-2, then threw four straight balls to put runners on first and second.
Up stepped Matt Zeimet, Preston’s starting pitcher who left in the fourth inning with game tied at 2. The left-handed hitter stroked a single. Left fielder Nick Wall hesitated after fielding the ball, but Larson never stopped, racing home ahead of the relay throw from Keeney to tie the game at 4.
“Down by one in the seventh inning, you’ve got to score,” Larson said. “That started it all off.”
Craiton Andresen followed with another single to left field, and when pinch-runner Driscoll stopped at third it brought up Feddersen’s, Preston’s leadoff batter and a .500 hitter on the season, with the bases loaded.
“I could have sent that winning run there, too, but we only had one out and they had that young kid out in left field,” Bormann said. “I knew we had Jason coming up. I’ll take my big chance with him coming up every time with the bases loaded and one out. I gambled on the tie to the game, and I didn’t gamble on winning the game.”
The decision paid off when Feddersen swung at the first pitch and bounced a single up the middle past the drawn-in infield to score Driscoll with the winning run.
“He was a tough pitcher all night,” Feddersen said of Daniels. “You’ve got to come through. You’ve got to get a big hit there. The game’s on the line. You’ve got to get something. If you don’t get your bat on the ball, nothing’s going to happen.”
It spoiled what appeared to be on the way to a special night for the home fans in Miles.
It didn’t start that way when Daniels walked three of the first four batters he faced — he finished with nine walks to go with 11 strikeouts — and then Larson doubled with two outs for a 2-0 lead. But they got a lift when Hinerichsen tried to score from first on the play, and Keeney’s relay throw cut him down.
“That was definitely an up, even though we got down there two-nothing,” Daniels said. “It was definitely an up throwing him out at the plate because if he scores that gets you down all the worse, and they’ve still got runners on and who knows what happens from there, but it was huge.”
East Central pulled even with single runs in the third — Vaughn Behn walked with two outs and Ben Hildebrandt and Keeney followed with back-to-back hits — and fourth innings, the latter scoring on a balk.
Preston reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the fourth when Daniels walked Colton Bormann intentionally to load the bases and then walked Hinerichsen to force in a run.
But Daniels struck out Blake Tebbe to end the inning — the second in a row in which he wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam with the bases loaded.
The problem for East Central was that while Daniels kept coming up big on the mound, Preston kept making plays in the field to keep the Raiders off the bases.
“Preston made the plays,” Miller said. “It seemed like whenever we got something going those guys came up with a play that shut it down.”
Tebbe made a diving grab to his left to rob Andrew Snodgrass of a hit to end the second inning, the Feddersen opened the third with a diving stop of Jared Henfrey’s liner that was headed for center field. The following inning, Feddersen robbed Daniels with a leaping catch for the second out. Both times, East Central scored after the big plays in the field, so they saved at least two runs.
“I got a good read on a couple of those balls,” Feddersen said. “It’s part of the game. I feel like those are plays that I should have made. They were tough plays. I felt good when I made those plays. Its gets everybody going; it gives everybody goosebumps.
“A lot of it is being in the right spot at the right time, but then again you’ve got to get a great break on the ball and be quick enough to get to it.”
Finally, though, Daniels hit one where the Trojans couldn’t catch it in the sixth with his two-run homer to right.
“It felt pretty good,” he said. “I came up looking for my pitch and got it. You don’t swing for the fence; when you connect it just kind of happens.
“I definitely thought we were up, but I guess in the end it didn’t work out that way.”
PRESTON 5, EAST CENTRAL 4
East Central 001 102 0 — 4 7 0
Preston 200 100 1 — 5 9 0
One out when winning run scored
Austin Daniels (L 5-6, 6 1⁄3 ip, 9 h, 5 r, 5 er, 9 bb, 11 so) and Kyle Johnson; Matt Zeimet (3 2⁄3 ip, 4 h, 2 r, 2 er, 2 bb, 0 so), Colton Bormann (W 4-3, 3 1⁄3 ip, 3 h, 2 r, 2 er, 0 bb, 2 so) and Bormann, Blake Tebbe (4). Multiple hits — East Central (Taylor Keeney 2); Preston (Colin Larson 2, Jason Feddersen 2). 2B — Preston (Larson). HR — East Central (Daniels). RBIs — East Central (Keeney, Daniels 2); Preston (Larson 2, Alex Hinerichsen, Feddersen).