BELLEVILLE — After their nine-game winning streak ended with a conference loss to Carbondale, the Althoff Crusaders jumped right back on the winning trail.
They built a big lead early Monday and hung on late, riding the pitching of Austin Keen and Seth Bertelsman to a 5-4 victory over the Mater Dei Knights.
Althoff coach Brett Isaacs wasn't sure what he had when the season began, but a lot of questions have been answered during the Crusaders' 13-3 start.
"A lot of that is a tribute to our seniors, to our leadership and the juniors behind them, too," Isaacs said. "I knew we had good talent, but I didn't know how competitive we'd be. We are good competitors; they don't like to lose and it shows in close games. That's been a big step for us."
Keen (4-1) struck out six of the first nine hitters he faced and was staked to a 4-0 lead. He worked quickly, got ahead in the count and relied on sharp breaking pitches.
"Early on he was really good," Isaacs said. "I'm really proud of him because he's gotten better every time out. He kind of lost a little gas there at the end and got tired, but before that I thought he handled them pretty well."
Althoff used small-ball to score twice in the first against Knights starter Kyle Eversgerd (2-2). They used an infield single by Sam Haudrich, a stolen base, a wild pitch, a walk, an RBI single by Collin McClellan and an RBI groundout.
There was nothing small about the Crusaders' next run in the second, a solo blast over the left-field fence by senior catcher Eric Mertens.
"He swings it pretty well and he's come a long way," Isaacs said. "He's improved a great deal from last year."
McClellan, who was 3-for-4 with an RBI, singled and stole second in the third before scoring on a hit by Luke Frazier to make it 4-1.
Haudrich's blazing speed in the leadoff spot led to another run in the fourth as he walked, stole second, then stole third and scored when the throw to third sailed into the outfield.
"We pressured them a little bit and caused a couple errors," Isaacs said.
Mater Dei (5-7) finally got through against Keen in the fourth on an RBI double by Blake Haag.
The Knights took advantage of a leadoff error in the sixth and scored three runs to cut Althoff's lead to 5-4. The big hits in the inning were a two-run, two-out single to right by Grant Camillo and an RBI single by pinch-hitter Zach Haake.
"Our kids have committed all year to playing complete games and never giving up no matter what kind of hole we're in," Mater Dei coach Travis Gebke said. "It took us a while to get it going offensively before we started squaring up some balls and putting some pressure on them."
Mater Dei had runners at second and third with two outs in the sixth when Isaacs summoned Bertelsman from the bullpen. He escaped that jam by returning Nick Hitpas on a grounder to short, then pitched a scoreless seventh.
"I just knew I had to keep the ball down against them," Bertelsmen said.
That seventh inning included diving Althoff third baseman Jake Fischer robbing Mater Dei's Brady Rakers of a potential double down the line.
"(Bertelsmen) hasn't thrown a lot for us, but when he's thrown it's been in some tight spots," Isaacs said. "He's shown that he's tough enough to handle it and doesn't get fazed by that."
Five of Mater Dei's seven losses have been by two runs or fewer, but Gebke is beginning to see progress.
"We're a very young team even in terms of the returning players," Gebke said. "Each day we're making strides in the right direction. We've certainly given ourselves chances to compete in almost every game."