By David Peck
In their finest post-season performance in many years, the Lovell Mustangs followed their second-place finish at the district tournament with a fourth-place finish at State last week, forging a 2-2 record at the Class A tournament in Douglas that included a dramatic win over defending state champion Cody.
The Mustangs opened the tournament Wednesday night with a 4-3 win over host Douglas, then met eventual champion Cheyenne in a Thursday quarterfinal game, falling 12-2.
Cody, meanwhile, had fallen to South number four seed Wheatland in a first-round shocker, 2-0, then edged Green River 14-13 on Thursday morning.
Lovell went toe to toe with Cody in a Friday thriller as Lovell took a big early lead against the two-time defending champs, lost the lead, rallied to lead by six, then held on in the ninth to win.
The exhausted Mustangs fell to Douglas Friday night, 11-1, and Douglas went on to place second, eliminating Wheatland before falling to Cheyenne in the championship game, 16-9. Both Cheyenne and Douglas will represent Wyoming at the regional tournament this week in Laurel, Mont.
“That was a great tournament for us to put everything together for a final weekend,” manager Michael Jameson said. “I’m really proud of how they came out and performed for four games.
“It’s a big step forward. It gave us a taste of success and something to look forward to next year. It shows we’re right there on the verge of being a state championship caliber team with a little more depth and a little more experience. Overall we were a pretty young team.”
Seven of the Mustang regulars were 16- or 17-year-olds. They lose only three players from this year’s squad: Cole Wambeke, Dakota Bond and Justin Bacus.
Lovell 4, Douglas 3
The Mustangs were at the top of their game in the opener, edging the hometown Cats and pitching ace Stryker Davies thanks to strong pitching and defense and timely hitting.
“We knew we were going to face Stryker (the co-pitcher of the year for the Class A South District),” Jameson said. “We told them to come out fearless and play and take care of business. Everyone felt pretty confident about the game, even facing the pitcher of the year from the South. We believed it was a game we were going to win. We had some momentum going. It was now or never.”
Riley Hill started on the mound and threw a complete game seven-hitter, walking just two and allowing three runs, two earned, while striking out four. Jameson said he could tell Hill would be on, even before the game.
“He was bounding off the walls in the hotel room,” the coach said. “He was pretty amped up and ready to throw. He’s one of those kids who thrives in that environment. Not all kids want the ball in that situation. He showed he wanted it.
“He was able to locate and throw different pitches for strikes. He pitched to contact and attacked the zone.”
While Hill retired the first nine batters he faced, the Mustangs got on the scoreboard first with a run in the bottom of the second on a sacrifice fly by Gehrig Sweat that scored Dawson Forcella.
After Douglas scored an unearned run in the top of the fourth on an error and a sacrifice fly, the Mustangs plated three in the bottom of the frame to lead 4-1. Jeremy Schneider broke the tie with a solo home run to left, and after Forcella reached on an error, he scored on a two-out single by Hill, who stole second and scored on a single by Trey Dickerson.
Schneider’s homer was a “no-doubter,” Jameson said, noting that he “turned on a pitch on the inside half of the plate.”
There was no more scoring until the top of the eighth when Douglas scored two on two singles, a double and a sac fly before Hill retired side on a pair of fly balls. In the top of the ninth Hill walked the leadoff batter, but a pinch-runner was gunned out at second by Forcella on an attempted steal and Hill recorded the final two outs on a strikeout and pop fly.
Cheyenne 12, Lovell 2
Lovell ran into a powerful Cheyenne Hawks squad in the second round. The feeder team for the dominant Cheyenne Post 6 AA program, the Hawks “10-runned” their first three opponents in Douglas – Powell, Lovell and Wheatland – before beating Douglas by nine in the finale.
The Mustangs had seven hits against Cheyenne Thursday but couldn’t sustain innings, while pitcher Cole Wambeke was hurt by seven errors behind him.
“It was one of those things where we were getting hits but couldn’t string things together to prolong innings and score runs,” Jameson said. “We faced the other co-pitcher of the year in RJ Prince.”
Lovell kept the game close for four innings, trailing 4-2 after four on a run in the third on an RBI single by Forcella to score Wambeke and a ground out in the fourth by Wyatt Horrocks to score Hill. Both Wambeke and Hill had opened the innings with singles.
Lovell trailed 3-2 after 3½ innings, but Cheyenne scored one in the bottom of the fourth, two more in the fifth and one in the sixth to lead 7-2, then broke the game open to win by the mercy rule in the seventh with five more against reliever Dickerson.
Lovell 15, Cody 13
The Mustangs took the game to the Cody Cubs Friday, building an 8-1 lead after 2½ innings. Dakota Bond set the tone by doubling to center on the second pitch of the game. Wambeke reached on an error to score Bond, and after Schneider walked, Wambeke and Schneider advanced on a ground out by Forcella and scored on a double by Hill.
The strong start was huge and indicative of the attitude the Mustangs brought into the game, Jameson said, wanting to overcome the lack of confidence the team had against Cody in previous games.
“They made up their minds and came out ready to play,” he said. “They decided it was time to get over that mental block. Scoring the three runs right off the top brought their energy level up and it never stopped.”
After Cody scored a run in the bottom of the first Lovell scored two in the top of the second when Forcella singled home Bond and Hill singled to score Schneider. After Schneider blanked Cody in the bottom of the second, Lovell plated three more in the top of the third to lead 8-1 on a Cody error and a two-run double by Schneider.
Jameson noted that the team had sometimes failed to produce runs with runners in scoring position, but they had plenty of clutch hits on Friday morning.
Cody scored four in the bottom of the third, aided by three errors, two walks, a hit batter and a wild pitch, then took a 9-8 lead with four more in the fourth on four walks, an error and a pair of wild pitches. Justin Bacus relieved Schneider and allowed a go-head sacrifice fly before retiring the side.
Rather than wilting against the champs, the Mustangs rallied to score three in the fifth, two in the sixth and two more in the seventh, taking a commanding 15-9 lead.
In the fifth, Hill doubled home Wambeke and Schneider (who had doubled) and scored on a Sweat single as the Mustangs continued to hit Cody pitching. In the sixth Wambeke and Schneider singled and scored on a double by Hill, and in the next frame Dickerson and Ross Padilla walked and scored on a single by Wambeke.
Bacus, meanwhile, blanked the Cubs in the fifth, sixth and seventh before running into trouble in the eighth when Cody plated three runs to cut the Lovell lead to three at 15-12 on a home run, error and sacrifice fly. Hill relieved Bacus and allowed the sac fly but got out of the inning.
Jameson said Bacus’ performance in relief was amazing.
“That was the difference in the game,” he said. “I can’t say enough about getting that pitching performance out of him. He hadn’t throw a lot of innings this year. It comes back to guys stepping up in key situations.”
Things got very interesting in the bottom of the ninth. Cody loaded the bases with two outs against Hill, who Jameson said was spent, and Wambeke took the mound. He walked in one run but got the final out on a fly ball to center, preserving the biggest Lovell upset in many years.
Lovell out-hit Cody 14-7 in the game but issued 12 walks and made seven errors. Cody made five errors and walked six. Bacus picked up the win, allowing three runs in 4 1/3 innings, and Wambeke earned the save after strong work by Hill.
At the plate Hill went 4-6 with seven runs batted in. Schneider was 3-4 with four runs and an RBI, Wambeke 2-6 with four runs and two RBIs. Forcella and Sweat had two hits each, as well.
The win was sweet, Jameson said, noting, “It felt really good to beat them, especially in a loser-out game.”
Douglas 11, Lovell 1
The Mustangs were never in the nightcap against Douglas Friday as the Cats scored six runs off starter Dakota Bond in the top of the first inning. They added two more in the fourth, one in the seventh and two in the ninth. Lovell scored a lone run in the sixth when Sweat singled, advanced on a single by Dickerson, stole third and scored on a wild pitch.
“It was kind of the reverse (of the Cody game),” Jameson said. “When they put six runs up in the first inning it was an uphill fight the whole way. It was difficult to overcome that. And they threw Zack Sloan, who holds the team record for strikeouts in a season.”
Lovell had five hits in the game, two by Bond, while the Cats rapped out 12 hits and took advantage of six Lovell errors while making six of their own. Lovell stranded 15 runners on base.
Bond went the distance, allowing 11 run, eight earned, in nine innings of work. He walked two and fanned a pair.
The Mustangs finished the season with 20 wins, their most in many years, ending the season 20-29-1 (with a tie in late May during a tournament in Billings).
The Class A All-State team was announced following the tournament, and three Mustangs made the team. Hill was named to the first team, Wambeke and Forcella to the second team.
Hill batted .471 at the state tournament (8-17) with four doubles and right RBIs. He scored three runs. On the season he batted .353 with 10 doubles, a triple, one home run and 33 runs batted in. He had a .463 slugging percentage.
He was 4-5 on the mound with a 5.94 earned run average and 33 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings of work.
Wambeke was 6-5 on the mound for the Mustangs with a 3.56 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 57 innings. He only walked 16. Wambeke also hit .294 with 23 RBIs and 35 runs scored.
Forcella hit .318 with 31 runs scored. He also handled the pitching staff at catcher and threw out several would-be base stealers.