Reivers rule again: Ninth-inning rally gives Iowa Western 2nd title in 3 years
All winter, it was the Grand Junction Challenge — flipping railroad ties, tossing truck tires over the outfield wall, pushing coaches in a utility cart down the third-base line. Full-body ice baths.
The video the Iowa Western Community College Baseball team made about the challenge stated: “Its sole purpose is to separate the undecided from the committed in a ritual every Reiver must pass and no Reiver wants to repeat.”
Saturday night, every Reiver passed.
Iowa Western, the top-ranked team in the NJCAA the final month of the season, rallied for two runs in the top of the ninth inning to beat San Jacinto (Texas) College-North 6-5 and win its second Alpine Bank Junior College World Series championship in the past three years.
“I can show you my national championship ring from 2010, it says right on it, ‘Together,’ ” Iowa Western coach Marc Rardin said. “We win together, we lose together, anything we do is together. I told that from Day 1 10 years ago.
“They’ve never called up to anything else. When we win a national championship, lose a national championship, whatever it is, it’s together. There’s an element to that I don’t think everybody has found yet, but Iowa Western baseball has found that.”
Down 5-4 entering the ninth inning — ironically, the same score that was the 2010 title game final when Iowa Western beat San Jacinto, only with San Jac leading this time — the Reivers’ Keaton Steele drew a leadoff walk.
Grant Kay pinch-hit for Alex Greer and pushed a bunt between the pitcher and first base and beat the throw. Steven Leonard bunted them both into scoring position with a sacrifice.
“As soon as they walked the first guy I knew I could push bunt,” Rardin said. “They’ve gotta hold him on, they’ve got a left-hander on the mound, I said, ‘OK, this is gonna get interesting.’ That started it all for us.”
Brett Bass, the kid brother of Brandon Bass, a member of the 2010 national championship team, punched the ball over shortstop to drive home Steele with the tying run.
“I was kind of upset, that first pitch was a really good pitch to swing at that I took,” Bass said. “Our coaches just said get something in the outfield, and that’s what I was focusing on, just trying to stay on the ball and do something with it.”
After reliever Skylar Janisse struck out Sam Bumpers, he walked Damek Tomscha to load the bases.
On the first pitch to Levi Meyer, every umpire in the infield called a balk, sending the go-ahead run across.
“I was not looking,” Rardin said of the balk. “My guys called it, and I heard people call it. I’ve been on both sides. It’s tough, but again, rules are rules. A hop over my first baseman for a routine third out (that scored a San Jac run in the third). It’s life.”
Meyer flied out to center to end the inning, and Rardin immediately went to his closer, Steele. He struck out Tyler West and Reggie Wilson, who was fanned four times after walking and scoring the first run of the game. Justin Byrd, though, laced a triple into the right-field corner, giving the Gators a chance to tie.
“As long as that ball’s not going over, I’m fine,” said Steele, who was grinning on the mound when Rardin went out to talk to him. “I knew the hitter’s gotta put a good swing on it, and he’s got to get it through my infield first, and our infield had one of the best fielding percentages here, so I was pretty excited.”
He got ahead of Kirby Taylor 0-2, then got him to ground out to short, with Gabriel De Varona, who replaced Steele at first, latching on to the throw from Brandon Tierney and setting off the traditional championship dogpile.
Steele’s two-run home run to left in the second inning got the Reivers back into the game, with Jarred Fancher tying it for San Jac in the second on a solo home run. The Gators (41-25) took a 3-2 lead in the third on that bad-hop single by Esteban Gomez that scored Byrd.
Back came Iowa Western with a run in the fifth on three base hits and a fielder’s choice by Bumpers. The Reivers added one run in the sixth for a 4-3 lead on Steele’s sacrifice fly, but San Jac wasn’t done.
Taylor singled up the middle with two outs for a 5-4 San Jacinto lead, setting up the finish.
“It was like that all year,” Bass said of the late rally. “We trailed in some games and weren’t playing well and found a way to win. We were confident we weren’t going to lose ball games this year.”
They didn’t lose many, finishing 62-6, and handled the pressure of being the favorite to win.
“I felt pressure halfway through the season, three-quarters of the way through the season, but once we got here, I honestly didn’t feel it as much,” Rardin said.“I don’t know why.
“My kids were excited to be here, and we were disappointed to lose to them the first time. But I told the kids, you can feel sorry or get up the next morning and compete, and we did.”