(This article was originally published on JMcDonaldMedia.com)
By Jeremy McDonald
SALEM, Ore.– It has been 24 years since the last time Santiam baseball entered the State Playoffs when the 1995 Wolverines reached the 2A/1A State Quarterfinals before falling to North Douglas 1-0.
Prior to that postseason journey, it was 1973 where the then-Class A Santiam Wolverines reached the State Semi-Final round before falling to eventual State Champion Lost River.
Fast forward to 2019, all the Wolverines needed was a win over Western Christian to snap an “IT”-like occurrence entering the final week of the season. But the Pioneers, who were in the 2A State Playoffs last season and sat in fourth-place entering Monday’s series opener, won the first two games of the series to make a win-and-you’re-in for third-place in league.
“It really came down to the wire too, we’ve had a lot of opportunities easily that we could’ve pushed ourselves forward to even not be in this position. But it’s those close games that kind of lead up to this,” said Western Christian’s Rylan Webster. “It happened, can’t change it, but it was a fun game.”
The Pioneers lost three tough one-run games this season and had opportunities Thursday against the Santiam defense to get on the board, but struggled to work by the Wolverines defense that started with their high-energy from the opening pitch.
“We sure wanted to get one four-, or five-games ago but just the energy of the players and Forste and with how supportive they are, they really got us fired up for this last game and ready to go,” said Colin Thurston. “They energy today was just crazy.”
The dugout was crazy with energy. Connor Forste went crazy as he crossed homeplate in the bottom half of the third inning to make it 6-0 off a JD Hakanson Fielder’s Choice.
Kobe Dyer did his job on the bump, throwing 58 pitches in six innings of work. Of those 58, 42 were called strike while the Junior only surrendered four hits while his defense cleaned up the rest that came their way.
Sendlinger, who and Thurston each had four hits, crashed into Hakanson for an out and nearly turned a double play soon after to help lead the back-up charge of Dyer in the game. All this stemmed from texting each other and learning from their four-game losing streak entering Thursday that they just need to play more relaxed than they have been.
“We started talking after last week and the last couple games, we knew we weren’t playing bad on defense they were hitting the ball. We were struggling at the plate the four games before this so we knew we had to get the bats going,” said Sendlinger. “We knew we had to come out and play relaxed because everyone was playing tight, so we came out and playing relaxed.”
The Pioneers, a relatively young team with five seniors to five underclassmen including Webster, saw the sophomore Webster strike out three and Junior Darrin Campbell strike out another five in the game with that strong young core returning another year older in 2020.
“Oh it’ll be a big push next year to improve and get bigger than the spot we’re at right now. We got a lot of mental things to work on, a lot of team things that we need to work on that’ll push us for next year,” said Webster.
Webster settled in after hitting in a run that made the game 8-0 entering the fifth, shutting down the Santiam bats in the fifth and picked up two of his three strikeouts to start the bottom of the sixth inning.
But before he could get the final out, the Wolverines loaded up the bases and were a pitch away from ending the threat with Thurston at the plate. A pitch is what it took, a single to right field, to brought the Wolverines out of the dugout celebrating their first playoff appearance since that 1995 season.
“They came together. It could have been very easy for them to come out today and not be enthused after the heartbreak we had on Tuesday,” said Wolverines Head Coach Clint Forste. “I mean that was such a heartbreaking loss the way that we lost the game and for them to come out the way they did today was phenomenal.
“I talked to them about it after the game, we made mistakes today…but instead of ripping on each other about the mistakes we hugged it out and we gathered around each other and got through those mistakes and man it helped.”
This group of seniors, who have tasted the postseason in Football and Basketball, will now do so in Baseball as well when they open the 2A/1A State Playoffs against a familiar foe from their league last season: St. Paul. The Buckaroos fought their way through the league playoffs Wednesday to qualify for the State Playoffs as St. Paul looks for their first-ever playoff win.