They relish the role of being the underdog.
A year ago, the Central DeWitt baseball team fought through one of the toughest Iowa Class 3A districts to stamp the school’s first-ever trip to the state baseball tournament in Des Moines. Despite going into the post-2010 season with a modest 16-15 record, the Sabers downed the two favorites — Dubuque Wahlert and Davenport Assumption — to earn their history-making state berth.
Central DeWitt was the underdog then. And despite a lofty No. 6 ranking in the latest Iowa Baseball Coaches Association Class 3A poll, the 2011 postseason road looks tough again.
But the Sabers have thrived on being the underdog. In a substate that includes top-ranked Solon, third-rated Wahlert and No. 10 Assumption, the Sabers are looking to repeat their Cinderella ride to the Class 3A state baseball tournament later this month. The journey begins at 5 tonight with a district opener against Assumption in Maquoketa.
Central DeWitt’s improbable maiden voyage to state included a walk-happy 7-3 victory over Carlisle in the state quarterfinals before a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to eventual state champion Glenwood in the semifinals.
“We like being the underdogs,” said Tom McClimon, a senior who plays catcher for the Sabers (23-11). “You’ve got nothing to lose, so you go out there and play your hardest. There’s no pressure.”
“We went through two of those teams (Assumption and Wahlert) last year, and we were bigger underdogs than we are this year,” noted senior Ryan Lechtenberg, who pitches and also plays left field. “We took things one game at a time last year, and I think if we focus one game at a time this year and not get too worried about errors and stuff like that, we’ll be all right.
“Coach (Shane) Sikkema last year was saying, ‘Give me one time,’ which means go out there and play our game because we’re going to play one game at a time,” continued Lechtenberg.
Sikkema, who ascended to the head coaching job this summer after spending several years as the assistant under Bill Petsche, recalled how this year’s group of seniors helped spark the team’s magical run a year ago.
“They play well together,” Sikkema said. “The camaraderie is second to none and the leadership of these (seniors) they keep pushing each other to get better each day. They’re a very competitive group and very willing to get better in practice.”
Those seniors who have been core to the success are Anthony Burke, Dillon Connell, Kody Dahl, Devin Daniels, Brandon Jasper, Lechtenberg, McClimon and Joshua Wiley.
For the Sabers, each player’s contributions have been important.
“It’s all about helping the team, and it’s a team effort here,” said Jasper, a pitcher and outfielder. “We don’t have a bunch of individuals. It’s a whole team one through nine and got a lot of arms this year which has been key to a lot of victories. When Tom (Nodurft, who gave up three hits in an 8-1 win over Maquoketa a week ago Tuesday) gives up only one run a game you’re going to win a lot of games. We play solid ‘D’ behind him so that helps a lot.”
“We have a lot of confidence in ourselves,” he added. “This team’s been unbelievable, you know, and our team chemistry is one of the greatest I’ve been around.”
For Sikkema and his crew, gradual improvement is the key to securing a state berth. Through 34 games, the Sabers pitchers have an ERA of 3.34, with staff ace Nodurft having a shining ERA of 1.26 to go along with 19 strikeouts. Jasper has a team high batting average of .427 with 35 RBIs, with sophomore Austin Lechtenberg right behind batting-wise with a .402. McClimon leads in RBIs with 36.
“When our total batting average as a team was .310, we weren’t an outstanding team, but we did what we had to do to win baseball games,” Sikkema said. “That was the thought process in the state tournament, too.”
In last year’s district final versus Assumption, the Sabers rallied in the seventh inning for three runs before squeaking out a 7-6 win in extra innings. Then against Wahlert, Connell’s diving catch over his head sealed a 9-7 upset victory over Wahlert to stamp the Sabers’ first trip to state.
It’s that same script the Sabers hope to write this summer. If it happens, it’ll come against the same foes — the Knights, Golden Eagles and possibly No. 1 Solon.
“We have higher standards than last year, but we still stay with our laid-back attitude; that seems to work best for us,” Daniels said. “Even with our big run last year, we’re a lot better team than last year because we come in expecting to win every game this year. We have a lot more confidence this year.”
Of course, there have been other keys to the Sabers’ success this summer. For instance, Jasper said that breaks are sometimes hard to control, but remembering that one big play could lead to another is sometimes big.
“Don’t give people easy bases. Stop every ball you can,” McClimon said.
“We’ve got to always be talking and knowing … the situation, what you’re going to do and let people know what you’re doing,” Daniels added.
“Just play with confidence and not get too worried about who you’re playing,” Lechtenberg noted. “Just play our game and throw strikes when you’re on the mound, and we’ll make the plays behind you.”
This year’s postseason run will mark the final high school games for the seniors. Whether the Sabers make it two state trips in a row remains to be seen, but there is plenty of advice this year’s seniors are willing to offer to young Sabers-in-waiting, whom could be part of future state tournament teams.
“You’ve got to work for it, and it starts in the off-season,” said Jasper, “even though a lot of us are more than one-sport athletes. I was a four-sport athlete so you work around that and get better at every sport during the off-season.”
McClimon advised athletes to work hard and keep improving, while Lechtenberg suggested always being confident and making the little plays that make a difference.
“Don’t worry about the press clippings,” Daniels said. “Sometimes there’s people out there that make Assumption and Solon and Wahlert that much better than us. Just play your game and it (success) will come to you.
“I feel like although we’re the underdog, teams don’t want to play us,” he continued. “They know if we play our best game we can compete with anybody out there as we proved last year. It seems like there’s a lot less pressure on the underdog because you’re not expected to win.”