ATLANTIC — This senior-laden Creston baseball team decided their season wasn't going to end in a district tournament opener.
The Panthers (14-14) are playing in tonight's district championship game against Glenwood on the Atlantic Trojans' home field on the strength of an 8-4 victory over district top-seeded Winterset Friday night.
The Huskies, with hard-throwing ace Andy Lambert on the mound, trailed 1-0 early but moved to a 3-1 lead in the second inning.
Creston put together a rally in the third to go ahead 4-3, but the Huskies tied it 4-4 in the bottom of the fifth.
Then, with Lambert still on the mound, the Panthers mounted their most impressive rally of the season at the most crucial of times. Two Husky errors helped, while the Panthers smacked three hits in a four-run outburst that gave Panther pitcher Chase Shiltz an 8-4 lead.
Tiring and losing some control in the seventh, Shiltz gave way to crafty senior Brandon Phipps, who had two Winterset batters off balance in finishing the save for the 8-4 victory.
"That's the first district victory I remember," said first baseman Nate Haley, one of six Panther seniors who have played in the program since their eighth-grade year.
Haley was a big part of the victory, providing two hits and two RBI. He said coach Steve Birchard helped prepare for Lambert in batting practice. Birchard said he moved "about 30 feet closer" to the plate and threw hard to quicken the Panthers' batting strokes.
"Coach humped it up today pretty good in BP," Haley said. "We've been taking hitting seriously the past week or so. We were ready for it."
While the Panthers were rapping nine hits and Winterset's defense had four errors, Shiltz effectively kept the Huskies in check with a mix of humming fastballs and sharp breaking pitches. Equally adept was the Panther defense, with just one first-inning error on a throw from Shiltz to shortstop Conner Pals for an attempted forceout.
There were several key plays in halting any big Winterset offensive innings.
Catcher Kadon Hulett put the brakes on Winterset's running game in the second inning. He threw to second baseman Jon Birchard in cutting down Parker Klimesh's steal attempt to end the inning, with Lambert — an Iowa Central Community College infield recruit — coming up next as the No. 3 batter.
After Shiltz stranded two baserunners in the third by getting two called third strikes, left fielder Garret Taylor got the second out in the fifth with a big play. Allen Shahan hit a single to left field with Lambert racing from first to third base on the play.
Taylor momentarily bobbled it, then came up throwing to Phipps at third base. Phipps caught the throw on the bounce and applied the tag on Lambert for the second out of the inning.
"The ball kind of bobbled off my chest and I had to reach down and get it," Taylor said. "I saw he was about halfway when I picked it up, and I thought I could get him. The ball kind of short-hopped Brandon and he he got it and put the tag on."
Moments later, the inning ended when Haley reached across his body to snare a hard liner hit by pinch-hitter Cole Seiler.
In the bottom of the sixth, after Creston had taken a four-run lead, Winterset tried to chip away by getting a leadoff walk. Pals was then involved in getting three straight outs. He fielded a grounder and threw to Birchard for a force out. Then, he scooped the next grounder up the middle, stepped on second and threw to Haley at first for an inning-ending double play.
That left the Huskies with having to make up the entire deficit in the bottom of the seventh.
"That was a Taylor-made double play," Pals said. "You've got the top of their order up, and a ball in the hole to get a double play to finish off the inning. I was jacked. Ever since I was a little kid, watching my brothers play, I just always wanted to be involved in the game and have the ball come to me every single play."
The Huskies were unable to dent the margin in the seventh, despite a leadoff single by Klimesh. After Cole Crawford caught a flyball in center, Shiltz walked Winterset catcher Colby Van Pelt, who was 0-for-3 on the day after homering against the Panthers in a 4-1 Husky victory on July 8.
With Shahan coming up, already with two hits and a walk against Shiltz, Birchard called on Phipps to close it out.
"I was getting over 100 pitches," Shiltz said. "I knew Brandon would throw strikes, and our defense always makes the plays."
Phipps, one of seven Panther seniors looking to make a statement in the 2014 postseason, was more than ready.
"I was kind of expecting to come in sometime," Phipps said. "I wanted to close it down. I was just telling Pals earlier in the day, I want to come in and finish this game off."
Phipps, working an array of off-speed pitches against the anxious Husky batters, got Shahan on a ground ball force out, and the last out was secured by Crawford in center on a flyball hit by Brandon Herr.
"Brandon has a great changeup," Hulett said after catching his first district tournament win. "The guy whiffed big time on that first one. We got him 0-1 and he was still out on his front foot when he flied out."
So how did the underdog Panthers knock off the district's top seed in such convincing fashion? Defense, for one thing. Winterset had four errors to the Panthers' one.
"All year long we've had solid defense behind Shiltz," Phipps said. "And on offense, coach really emphasized putting the ball in play. Put it in play, good things will happen. That's high school baseball. People are going to throw it around sometimes. We've been really working on two-strike hitting."
The middle and bottom of the Panther order provided the winning rally in the sixth, when it was tied 4-4
Shiltz singled to left from the No. 5 position. Phipps reached on an infield error. Hulett then rapped an RBI single up the middle. Designated hitter Trey Benson grounded a two-run single through the infield, making it 7-4.
Taylor, still nursing a back injury sometimes affected by the batting swing, was replaced by eighth-grade pinch-hitter Jaden Driskell. Against the hard-throwing senior, Driskell laced a bad-hop single through the right side to send Benson home for the final 8-4 margin.
"Everybody but one guy got a hit for us tonight," coach Steve Birchard said. "When you hit up and down the lineup, you're going to score those kind of runs. We had guys getting pretty good swings on a good pitcher. I was really impressed with that. Our 6-7-8-9 spots had three hits, and theirs had one hit."
At the top, Pals scored two runs and both Haley and Trevor Luther had two hits.
Equally impressive was the relative steady play in the field, keeping Shiltz out of jams.
"I feel like we have a bit of calm about us in some of those situations," Birchard said. "With a runner on second and one out, they hit a sharp groundball, and we get the out. We have some guys in a nice defensive groove right now. Same with Brandon there at the end. He has a calm about him to go in and get the job done."
Tonight, the Panthers face a 22-10 Glenwood team that needed nine innings to slip past Atlantic Friday, 6-5. The Rams swept the Panthers earlier this season in two good games, 2-1 and 3-1.
"I think our guys have the confidence that they can do it," Birchard said. "What we did tonight against a pretty good pitcher says a lot about what our kids are about."
Tonight's winner will play in Wednesday's substate fina; in Harlan against either Carroll, or a Harlan team seeking its fourth straight trip to state.
Creston 8, Winterset 4
R H E
Creston 103 004 0 — 8 9 1
Winterset 300 010 0 — 4 8 4
Cr: Chase Shiltz 6K 6BB, Brandon Phipps (7) 0K 0BB and Kadon Hulett. W: Andy Lambert 11K 1BB and Colby Van Pelt. W — Shiltz. L— Lambert. RBI — Cr: Nate Haley 2, Trey Benson 2, Trevor Luther 1, Hulett 1, Jaden Driskell 1; W: Brandon Herr 2, Cullen Donahue 2. Multiple hitters — Cr: Luther 2, Haley 2; W: Parker Klimesh 2.