IOWA CITY — After about every state championship game, players and coaches from the victorious side exchange high-fives, embrace and flash wide smiles achieving a season-long mission.
The Pleasant Valley High School baseball team did all those things Saturday evening. But as it walked off the diamond with its first state championship trophy, it was truly a bittersweet moment.
Reserve Max Withers knelt at home plate to gather his thoughts. Some stood in the infield at Duane Banks Field savoring their final act as teammates. Others were sobbing.
“It hasn’t sunk in we won the state championship, but it has really sunk in that was our last one together,” senior Seth Clausen said. “We’ll never step foot on the same field together again.”
For 10 seniors, the ending could not have been any sweeter.
After becoming the first program to navigate its way through the Mississippi Athletic Conference unscathed and qualifying for a third consecutive state tournament, top-ranked PV finished the job with a convincing 14-5 rout over defending state champion Johnston in the Class 4A final.
“It is a dream team for us,” said outfielder Drew Micek, who squeezed the final out. “We’ve been dreaming about this since we were little kids.
“You watch PV baseball growing up and you just want to be out there. To be on this stage in front of everybody and to accomplish this, it is so exciting. I have tears falling down my eyes.”
The Central Iowa Metropolitan League has had a stranglehold on baseball titles in the largest classification.
PV is the first MAC school to capture the 4A championship since Davenport West in 1987 and just the third not from central or western Iowa in the past 26 years joining Cedar Rapids Kennedy (2010) and Cedar Rapids Prairie (2016).
“It was a group of guys who had one common goal,” Spartans coach Derek Stecklein said. “When you’ve got a collective goal and everybody is working toward the same thing, good things happen.”
Pitching, defense and situational hitting has been the hallmark of PV’s success. The Spartans found another gear with their bats in the final.
The Spartans (37-4) had their highest scoring output of the season against the Dragons, who had never surrendered more than eight runs in a game all year.
Stymied by Johnston starter Jacob Wolver for the first two innings, PV strung together 14 runs in the third, fourth and fifth innings. It batted around the order in the fourth and fifth innings as Johnston (37-8) used five pitchers.
Hits were sprinkled throughout PV’s lineup, but the bottom half of the order rose to the occasion. Ryan Thoreson, the No. 8 hitter, was 3-for-4 and accounted for three runs. Micek, the No. 9 hitter, had two hits and was on base all four times.
“Thoreson and Micek are almost second leadoff hitters for us,” junior Barrett Lindmark said.
A six-run fourth gave PV an 8-3 cushion. The Spartans had their first six hitters reach in the inning, including three straight doubles from Ryan Mumey, Matthew Meyer and Carson Albrecht. PV finished the game with a half-dozen doubles.
If the ball wasn’t finding the gap or going down the line, PV was taking walks. Johnston allowed seven free passes and plunked one PV batter.
“We were executing everything,” Stecklein said. “If we were going to save the most runs we’ve scored all year until today, I’m OK with that.
“I don’t know if we’ve done a better job of execution and locking in and staying focused throughout the course of a game inning-by-inning.”
Johnston responded with two runs in the fifth inning to whittle the deficit to 8-5, but PV retaliated with six more runs in the bottom half as it sent 11 hitters to the plate.
The three games in three days took a toll on Johnston's pitching as it brought its starter back in for a second stint. It didn’t work.
“We were hitting the ball well, we saw the ball well and we were taking our walks when they would give it to us,” Thoreson said. “We barreled up the baseball when we got good pitches to hit.”
It caught Johnston by surprise.
The Spartans mustered only two runs against the Dragons in their earlier meeting this season and recorded only 13 in their previous three postseason games combined.
“We watched the Prairie game (semifinal), and we didn’t think they could hit very well,” Johnston outfielder Miles Risley said. “Obviously, they came out and showed it today.”
The defense and pitching did the rest.
PV, the top fielding team in 4A, turned four double plays to limit big innings.
Meyer threw the first four innings and collected his second win of the state tournament. Lindmark, who has pitched sparingly in the last month because of a shoulder injury, worked the final three innings.
“I knew I was going to have to battle,” Lindmark said. “I was going to do whatever I could to win that state championship for my team. I wasn’t going to go down easy.”
After Micek hauled in the final out, the championship dogpile ensued.
“Our determination, our goals and our belief in each other, that’s been huge this year,” Meyer said. “We’ve never been out of a fight in a game, and we’ve always come back. That’s what makes this group special.”
That bond has extended off the field, which resulted in the tears afterward.
The team ate breakfast together after weight lifting sessions. They hung out together outside of practices and games.
“On and off the field,” Clausen said. “it was a collective bunch that fit so well together.
“It really feels we deserve every bit of this.”