BY CHRIS PATTON
Last season, Monticello knocked St. Joseph-Ogden out of the baseball postseason in the sectional semifinals on a seventh inning home run.
This season, the Spartans returned the favor, only a round earlier and behind a barrage of long balls.
SJO (31-5) homered six times to beat the Sages 12-9 in the championship game of the Class 2A Tuscola Regional. Monticello finished the season with an overall record of 25-7.
The Spartans led 7-2 after three innings, but Monticello tied the game with five runs in the top of the fourth. One inning later, SJO chased Sages starting pitcher Daniel Caldwell and scored five runs of their own.
Spartan hurler Dalton Parker struck out nine of the final 14 batters he faced and squashed a Monticello rally in the bottom of the seventh.
Parker pitched a complete game, striking out fourteen Sages. Monticello struggled to adjust to the home plate umpire’s wide strike zone, and was called out looking seven times.
After the game, Monticello head coach Chris Jones was quick to praise the fight his team showed in coming back after falling behind early.
"We’ve got eight seniors and a great group that has been in tight ballgames," Jones said. "I don’t think there’s ever been any quit in our guys. They were able to play long ball on this field and we weren’t."
Monticello jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. Ryne Bundy reached on a single, and then stole second base. He advanced to third when Jacob Burton reached on an error by Spartan first baseman Aaron Schluter. Bundy scored on Daniel Peterson’s sacrifice fly.
The top-seeded Spartans wasted no time in taking back the lead. Leadoff batter Ty Brown drew a walk. Kohlton Johnson followed with a double. Catcher Chase Gadau then lined the first pitch he saw over the wall for a three-run home run. Caldwell recovered by striking out three of the next four batters.
The Sages didn’t hang their heads and went right back to work, clawing away at SJO’s 3-1 lead. Konnor Bundy led off with a single and scored on Nathan Mumm’s base hit. After an inning and a half, the Sages were only down one.
SJO pounced again in the bottom of the second, taking advantage of the smaller dimensions of the diamond at Tuscola’s Ervin Park. Mason Coon and Brandon Sparks hit back-to-back solo shots and Gadau recorded his second homer of the game, this time a two-run shot. The Spartans led 7-2 and sent Parker back out to the mound, who had only allowed one earned run all season.
Both teams went three-up, three-down in the third inning. What followed was an inning that revved up the Monticello faithful.
With one out, Konnor Bundy was hit by a pitch and Tyler Jones followed with a single. Caldwell received a free pass from his pitching counterpart. Mumm hit a sharp grounder to third and after a nice stop by SJO’s Alex Hager, Jones was forced out. Bundy crossed the plate to make the score 7-3. Ryne Bundy reached on an error and the bases were loaded again. David Vanderkloot jumped on the first pitch from Parker. His grand slam tied the game at 7-7.
In the bottom of the fourth, Caldwell retired the first two batters he faced, but allowed the Spartans to load the bases on two singles and a walk. Caldwell refocused and struck out Parker to end the inning.
With momentum firmly in their dugout, Monticello could not take the lead. Three Sages struck out looking in the top of the fifth.
SJO took the lead back for good in the bottom of the fifth. Cole Berry and Clayton Slifer reached on singles, setting the table for Coon’s second home run of the game. After a single by Sparks, Vanderkloot assumed the pitching duties for Monticello. Johnson hit a two-run homer to give SJO a 12-7 lead.
Monticello put two runners on base in the sixth, but Parker worked out of the jam.
With their backs against the wall in the top of the seventh and trailing by five, the Sages didn’t give up. Peterson reached on an error and Konnor Bundy brought him home with the eighth home run of the contest. Monticello climbed within three, but Jones was called out on strikes to end the game.
The Spartans advance to the Monticello Sectional to face Okaw Valley Conference foe St. Thomas More.
Vanderkloot’s four RBI led the Sages. Konnor Bundy and Nathan Mumm each had a pair of hits and drove in two runs a piece.
The Sages pounded out nine hits against Parker, who attracted multiple Division One college scouts to the game.
"Offensively, we felt pretty confident that we could get the ball put in play," Jones said.
The loss ended a stellar run for eight Monticello seniors. Coach Jones had rave reviews for the group.
"I hope this is the start of a tradition," Jones said. "As juniors they went to the super-sectional last year and came into a tough regional. We knew it was a tough regional and knew we were going to have to play our best game. Where they’ve taken this program to, I’ve truly been blessed to have that group of seniors and extremely proud to have been able to coach them."