Twenty-five years ago I stood in the media box at Marshalltown High School shooting photographs of Lenox pitcher Kurt Stoaks on the mound for coach Steve Westphal’s team at the state tournament.
During most of my run here at the News Advertiser, Lenox baseball has stood for quality and contention for state championships.
So, it was a little sad to see the program fall into the depths of five wins in the aftermath of Westphal’s final team in 2009, which placed second in the state with a 10-man roster.
I covered some tournament games involving Lenox during those struggling years, and it just didn’t seem right.
I played for Hall of Fame coach Ed McNeil in Fort Dodge, who coached a state championship in 1969, and I was taught the “little things” that separates great teams from average teams.
I had grown accustomed to observing those qualities in the Lenox Tigers teams.
Now, the program is back on its feet. Stoaks and former teammate Brian Wood have built it back up through a lot of hard work and dedication from a new talent base.
The Tigers (22-6) were stopped one game short of their ninth trip to state Tuesday night. But what I saw in that eighth-inning battle with a veteran, talented Underwood team was the Lenox quality baseball I’d admired over the years.
Junior Caleb Lange was a warrior on the mound, holding the Eagles in check on two hits over eight innings and more than 100 pitches, just three days after going five innings of relief in a 10-inning victory over Fremont-Mills for a district championship.
Offensively, the Tigers outhit Underwood 11-2 with contributions up and down the lineup against Austin Konsor, considered one of the best pitchers in southwest Iowa. Nine runners left on base tells the story of missed opportunities by the Tigers.
Lenox’s season ended on a bobbled grounder and high throw to the plate, allowing Underwood’s Caleb Wichman to slide just ahead of the tag by Tiger senior catcher Dustin Gordon.
Afterward, Stoaks and Wood did some of their best coaching when they pulled aside freshman second baseman Kaleb Anderson, who rapped two hits in the game, to explain that he was a key contributor and that the outcome did not hinge on one play.
I probably admired Stoaks and Wood more for that touching moment than for any game decision they made on the field.
Many of us have stood in Anderson’s shoes. I remember a game at Waterloo West when I was playing second base and botched two easy plays in the same inning.
McNeil was a stoic, larger-than-life figure, and I didn’t even want to face him coming off the field that inning. It’s now 41 years since that happened, and the memory is still etched in my mind.
“Play the game the right way,” he growled, apparently thinking I had been lackadaisical in my approach to fielding my position.
So, even though I agreed with Stoaks and Wood that one play doesn’t decide a game, it’s hard when you’re in that position to not think that at the time. What those coaches did in showing they had his back was a monumental gesture.
“He’s a freshman,” Stoaks told me afterward. “To start the season, his parents said he wasn’t even sure he was coming out. All last year, we struggled to find a solid second baseman and then we lost Mason (Peterson), who was a great shortstop and pitcher. People said, how are you going to replace that?
“Well,” Stoaks continued, “who knew the 5-2 guy at second was going to be the guy who glued things together for us all year there? He’s a very sure glove and has a lot of fire. He’s been the spark of the team all year.”
I’ll tell you what, my kids could play for Kurt Stoaks and Brian Wood any day. I would know they were in good hands.
It would have been a great story for Todd Stoaks to play at state in his senior season for his dad, as well as Gordon, the other senior, to showcase his hustling style in front of a state tournament crowd.
It was very close to happening. With seven starters back, you have to give the Tigers a shot at getting another substate opportunity in 2015. Pitchers Lange and 6-foot-7 Spencer Brown will be a handful for opponents.
Lenox baseball is back. And southwest Iowa is better for it.
It was also nice for this group of seven Creston baseball seniors to finally taste victory in the postseason. There had not been a Panther district tournament win since 2008, the year after Bill Krejci and Steve Birchard guided the Panthers to state.
Glenwood derailed the Panthers’ quest to return to state under Birchard, who also has a son playing his final season for him. But it was fun to see them legitimately beat district top seed Winterset and earn a chance to play for a district championship.
Like Lenox, this group of seniors led a steady rise in success since a dropoff right after the state tournament year, and they deserve credit for that. Trevor Luther, Cole Crawford, Garret Taylor, Trey Benson, Brandon Phipps, Jon Birchard and Nate Haley left their mark and showed the upcoming young players how to carry yourself on the field.
That was the last group of boys I coached in middle school basketball before switching to girls. It was fun to watch them grow up and become young men the community could be proud of while wearing the Panther uniform. Good luck to them in the next phase of their lives.
This has been a whirlwind week, with two all-night shifts trying to get stuff done at tournament time while Scott Vicker has been monitoring things at the state softball tournament.
But as of this evening, I’ve transitioned into some much anticipated “down time.”
My sons and I are going to Cooperstown, N.Y., this weekend for the Baseball Hall of Fame inductions. It’s a “bucket list” trip we decided to do when we heard of this year’s class.
Son Brett is a longtime Braves fan, and in particular, admired Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. His brother Keith is a White Sox fan and his favorite player was Frank Thomas. Those three are among the inductees, as well as former Braves manager Bobby Cox and manager Tony LaRussa, who led a pair of World Series titles while leading my favorite team, the Cardinals, from 1996 to 2011.
So, we all have an interest in somebody going into the Hall of Fame this year. It should be a great experience.
To keep with modern trends, maybe I can bring back a “selfie” with a baseball celebrity. LaRussa, hopefully!
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