KEARNEY — Kearney Runza played five games in a five-day span prior to Wednesday night’s American Legion State Tournament National Division championship game.
The influx of games taxed Runza’s pitching staff and forced coach Brad Archer to start left-handed pitcher Cal Higgins in the biggest game of the season.
Higgins dominated opposing teams throughout the summer for Kearney Post 52, but Wednesday marked the 16-year-old’s first start for Kearney’s top American Legion team.
A lack of fundamental baseball by Runza’s defense hindered Higgins ability to thrive on the mound and caused Gretna to secure an early four-run lead. The deficit was too much for Runza to overcome, as they lost to Gretna 5-1 at Memorial Field.
Runza’s defense finished the game with six errors.
"There is just sometimes in the game of baseball that things don’t workout in your favor right there," Runza coach Brad Archer said. "Unfortunately, those plays happen all the time in baseball. It’s just a situation tonight that it happened to us in the first inning and put us in a hole."
Runza got off to a lackluster start in the championship game.
Gretna loaded the bases on a hit batter, error and infield single to begin the first inning. A line drive single to left field by Quinn Mason, Gretna’s cleanup hitter, allowed two runs to score. Gretna then stole home twice due to Kearney’s miscommunication on double steals to secure an early four-run lead.
Kearney capitalized on Gretna starting pitcher Nolan Eby’s inability to throw strikes in the bottom of the first. After Trey Rodriguez drew a leadoff walk, Eby recorded two strikeouts before walking three consecutive batters, which pushed a run across for Runza.
"I don’t think you could’ve drew up a worst first inning if you tried to," Archer said. "What I thought was probably the biggest play was after we hit the leadoff hitter to start the game we didn’t make the play on the sacrifice bunt. Once we didn’t make that play, then we got another sacrifice bunt, and then they kind of small balled us throughout the inning."
Gretna added a run in the sixth on a two-out base hit. Runza had a chance to cut into Gretna’s lead in the bottom of the inning, as they loaded the bases with no outs. The offensive pressure sparked a pitching change for Gretna, who went to reliever Evan Beran.
Beran recorded back-to-back strikeouts and a fly out to preserve Gretna’s four-run advantage.
In the seventh, the first two batters reached for Runza, but they failed to score.
On the mound, Higgins pitched well despite battling around defensive blunders. He went 3 2/3 innings, allowing four runs (one earned) on two hits and three walks.
Will Richter relieved Higgins and pitched the final 3 1/3 innings, allowing one run on four hits and one walk. He also struck out three batters.
"Our pitching, other than the first inning and the fluke plays, I was happy with our pitching tonight," Archer said.
Runza defeated Millard West 4-3 in eight innings on Wednesday afternoon to advance to the championship game.
After Millard West posted two runs in the bottom of the first inning, neither team scored until the fourth when Kearney tallied its first run on a Richter sacrifice fly.
Runza evened the score in the sixth before a defensive blunder in the bottom half of the inning caused them to trail by one run once again. With two outs, Seth Stroh misplayed a ground ball, which allowed Millard West to score the go-ahead run.
Stroh redeemed himself in the seventh when he delivered a hard ground ball to left field to even the score.
Sam Engberg delivered a double down the left field line to score Layne Shiers from first base for the eventual game-winning run in the eighth inning. Jaxon Worley pitched a clean eighth to preserve Kearney’s lead and keep its season alive.
"The first game today was a great game," Archer said. "It gave us an opportunity to get in the final here. Very proud of our team."