By David Peck
Usually, the team hosting a state baseball tournament receives an automatic bid to said tournament, but when Wyoming American Legion Baseball officials awarded the tournament to the Lovell-Greybull Mustangs earlier this year, they said there would be no automatic bid for the host team. The Mustangs would have to earn their way to State.
No problem. The Mustangs pulled off two upsets at the Class A North District Tournament in Wheatland last week, placing third and advancing to the state tournament being held in Cowley this week.
Playing their best ball of the season, the Mustangs pounded the Gillette Rustlers 15-3 Wednesday afternoon, fought hard but fell to the west top-seeded Cody Cubs 12-6 Friday morning, then dispatched the east top-seeded Douglas Cats 10-8 Thursday night to qualify for the state tournament at home as the third seed from the North.
Coach Steve Durtsche said having to earn a berth in the state tournament was on the players’ minds.
“Absolutely,” he said when asked. “We talked about that from the very beginning of the year. To make State we had to play our way into it. If it’s in your hometown you want to be there. Everybody on the team wanted this, not just for us. It’s good for the community, too.
“Over the last two days I’ve had more support from the community than I can remember as a player or a coach. People are paying more attention than you think.”
The Mustangs played the Green River Knights Tuesday night in the first round of the tournament.
Mustangs 15, Gillette 3
Lovell-Greybull, the third seed from the west banged out 20 hits to crush the Gillette Rustlers (2E), the “junior varsity” or “B” team of the AA Gillette Roughriders, Wednesday afternoon.
Caleb Horrocks doubled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Calder Forcella in the first inning, and Jeremy Schneider singled and scored on a double by Cade Dooley in the fourth as Lovell-Greybull led 2-0. Wheatland got to Mustangs starter Forcella for two runs in the bottom of the fourth after the Greybull hurler had allowed no hits over the first three frames, but Forcella singled and scored in the top of the sixth to put the Mustangs up 3-2.
Clinging to the one-run lead, the Mustangs exploded for six runs in the seventh and six more in the eighth to sew up the victory. Dawson Forcella, Schneider, Trey Dickerson, Dooley, Wyatt Horrocks, Cole Wambeke and Calder Forcella rapped singles during the seventh-inning outburst, and Schneider, Dickerson, Wambeke (double), Dawson Forcella and Justin Bacus hit the ball in the eighth.
Wambeke went four for five in the game with three runs batted in, Calder Forcella was 2-5 with three RBIs, Schneider 3-5 with two RBIs, Dawson Forcella 3-6 with one run batted in and Caleb Horrocks 2-3 with two RBIs.
Calder Forcella threw seven innings to pick up the win, allowing eight hits and three runs, two earned, with three strikeouts and two walks. With the game well in hand, Dakota Bond pitched the eighth in relief, allowing one hit and no runs, after which the game was called via the 10-run mercy rule.
Asked what led to the late-game explosion, Durtsche noted, “We honestly got rid of our nerves. Once a couple of players started hitting the ball, they all started hitting. This was a game we had to have. We knew going in that it was a must win.
“We were tough defensively (only one error), and we looked good. The guys had energy. Our sticks came alive and everybody started hitting. Everyone was amped up, and when there’s energy in the dugout there’s a good chance for a rally.
“You could see it in the guys’ eyes. Everybody wanted it.”
In the other first-round game Wednesday the host Wheatland Lobos (3E) crushed the Powell Pioneers (2W) 19-2.
Cody 12, Mustangs 6
Wednesday’s win set up a Thursday morning game against the top seed out of the west, the Cody Cubs, who received a first-round bye.
Cody jumped on Lovell-Greybull starter Justin Bacus for six runs in the bottom of the first inning, then added two more in the bottom of the second to give Cody an 8-0 cushion, but perhaps reflecting the new confidence of the Mustangs, they rallied for five runs in the top of the fourth inning against Cody ace John Beaudrie as reliever Dakota Bond shut down the Cody bats.
Beaudrie hit Caleb Horrocks with a pitch to start the inning, and after a single by Wambeke and a walk to Calder Forcella, Dawson Forcella singled to plate Horrocks and Wambeke and Calder Forcella came home on an error. Dawson Forcella scored on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Bacus, and Jeremy Schneider scored on a wild pitch, having reached on an error.
After Cody made it 9-5 with a run in the bottom of the fourth, Lovell-Greybull got it back with a run in the fifth on an RBI single by Dawson Forcella.
Bond pitched four scoreless innings over six innings, giving the Mustangs time to recover and trail only 9-6 before Cody sealed the win with three runs in the bottom of the eighth.
“We knew we needed to save some pitching to win the next game, so until our guys know they can beat Cody, we wanted to play it safe,” Durtsche said. “Bac (pronounced ‘Bake’) was a little bit nervous…Bond threw like a stud.”
Trailing 8-0, a lesser team might have wilted, but after winning three games at the Billings Halos Wood Bat Tournament the previous weekend the team knew they could play with anybody, Durtsche said.
“I give all the credit to the guys,” he said. “They’ve played through a lot of adversity and never gave up. We started the game a little slow, but once we realized we could hit their ace we gave them a run for their money. We were right there (trailing 9-6 late).”
The Mustangs got 10 hits against Cody, three by Dawson Forcella and two each by Wambeke, Bacus and Dooley. After the rough start by Bacus, Bond threw seven innings, allowing four runs on seven hits.
Mustangs 10, Douglas 8
The Mustangs faced a “win to get in” game against the Douglas Cats Thursday night in Wheatland. The top seed from the east, Douglas fell to Wheatland 7-1 earlier in the day.
After 2½ scoreless innings to start the game, Douglas got to Lovell-Greybull starter Jeremy Schneider for five runs in the bottom of the third, but the Mustangs rallied quickly, plating three runs in the top of the fourth as Calder Forcella led off with a triple, brother Dawson doubled and Schneider doubled Dawson home, scoring later on an error.
Lovell-Greybull added three more in the top of the fifth to knot the score 6-6 after Douglas scored a run in the bottom of the fourth. This time Caleb Horrocks led off with a triple and scored on a single by Wambeke, who advanced to third on a double by Calder Forcella and scored on a single by Bacus that also scored Forcella.
The Mustangs scored a run in the sixth to lead 7-6, then took charge with a three-run eighth to lead 10-6. Horrocks, Dawson Forcella, Bacus and Schneider singled during the big inning.
“Once we got something going you could see Douglas’s heads drop and we knew we had the momentum right when we needed it,” Durtsche said of the Mustang big innings. “After we took the 10-6 lead and were in the huddle to go out on defense you could see it in the guys’ faces. We knew we were going to State, although it got a little interesting.”
Down by four heading into the bottom of the ninth, Douglas attempted a comeback, loading the bases against reliever Wambeke on two singled and a walk. Durtsche brought in Calder Forcella to thwart the rally, but Douglas managed to score two runs on a dropped fly ball and a single. Forcella got a key strikeout, and Dickerson snared a line drive for the final out.
Wambeke picked up the win in relief of Schneider, allowing seven hits and three runs in 5 1/3 innings of work. Forcella picked up the save.
“Cole pitched well,” Durtsche said. “He threw the ball as well as I’ve seen him throw this year (despite a recurring sore arm). He’s still sore, but he did it because the team needed him.”
Lovell-Greybull bats picked up 17 hits in the win, three each from Horrocks, Dawson Forcella, Bacus and Schneider, two off the bat of Calder Forcella. Bacus and Dawson Forcella drove in three runs apiece.
“This win was good for everybody,” Durtsche added. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but the guys worked through it. They deserved it. It was good for the coaches, too, and it was nice to see Ray (Peterson) smiling. He has put his heart and soul into this program. That was pretty special.”
In the other Thursday game, Gillette eliminated Powell 15-5. On Saturday, Gillette eliminated Douglas 25-7 to earn the fourth seed for the state tournament, with Lovell third. Cody shut out Wheatland 10-0 to win the title and earn the top seed for the state tourney. Wheatland is the second seed heading into Cowley.