DES MOINES – Welcome to the Iowa state baseball tournament, where a first-round victory over a defending champion yields a team who has won the tournament the last two seasons.
No problem for the Sabers.
Central DeWitt rode the right arm of Alex McAleer in a Class 3A semifinal, defeating Davenport Assumption 4-1 Friday afternoon at Principal Park in Des Moines.
With the win, the Sabers earn their first chance in program history to compete in the championship round, where Cedar Rapids Xavier awaits Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
McAleer went the distance against the Knights, again proving that Central DeWitt doesn't have a single "ace" on its staff, but rather option No. 1 and option No. 1(a).
The junior stifled a potent Davenport Assumption lineup to just two hits and struck out a whopping 11 batters, many of which came on his fiery fastball that can reach 85 mph. The Knights have won the title the past two seasons, including last year, when they eliminated the Sabers in a tight-knit substate final to advance to Des Moines.
Similar to their win over reigning Class 2A winner Centerville Tuesday afternoon, the Sabers pounced early. Devin Hurdle (again) sparked a first-inning rally with a lead-off walk, stole second and scored on Garrett Finley's single.
The Sabers took a 2-0 advantage later in the inning on Jacob Swanson's double that flew over the head of Knights' center fielder Nick Gottilla to score pinch-runner Ben Mason from first base.
McAleer took over from there. He allowed a solo homer to Jayson Willers in the second and a single to Nate Schlichting in the fourth, but that was virtually the extent of the Knights' offense. McAleer worked a handful of deep counts, but only issued two walks.
Hurdle struck again in the second, hitting a ball about as far as you can without it leaving Principal Park, instead settling for a run-scoring double to score Boomer Johnson.
After Nolan Haack started the seventh with a triple, Lucas Bixby gave Central DeWitt an insurance run with a sharp grounder through the middle of the infield to extend the Sabers lead to 4-1, which eventually held as the final score.
The Knights rarely had legitimate scoring chances, but it felt like they could have trimmed the deficit in the sixth inning, as the top of the order stepped in for their third look at McAleer.
McAleer retired Gottilla via pop up and fanned Adam Metivier, who reached first after the third strike trickled away from catcher Finley.
Swanson then snared a hard line drive off the bat of all-stater Seth Adrian and nearly turned an unassisted double play but Metivier was ruled safe on his scramble back to first base.
McAleer then struck out Nick Schlichting for his 10th strikeout of the game, pumping his fist en route to the dugout.
The contest marked the fifth time in the past six seasons Central DeWitt and Davenport Assumption have met in the postseason.
The Knights gutted out a substate final victory over the Sabers last season, avenging Central DeWitt district title victories in 2015 and 2016. Assumption eliminated the Sabers in 2013 and 2014.
Central DeWitt did not commit an error behind McAleer, making all the plays it should – and then some. Haack ran down a ball in the left-center gap that could have scored a runner from first in the fourth.
Henry Bloom ended the fifth with a leaping grab at second. Bixby made a pair of smooth plays at third base in the seventh.
Davenport Assumption elected to not pitch Gottilla, an all-state southpaw whose 90 mph fastball earned a commitment to the University of Central Florida next year.
Brandon Schlichting was formidable on the mound, throwing seven innings of his own, allowing four runs on seven hits. But the Sabers were better.
Central DeWitt (38-3) and top-seeded Cedar Rapids Xavier (40-2) will throw the first pitch at approximately 4:30 Saturday afternoon.