Down by a run in the bottom of the eighth inning Saturday with their season on the line, the Althoff Crusaders found inspiration in the lasting memory of one of their former players.
Former Althoff pitcher Mike Kelley died of cancer nine days ago at age 28 and his “Refuse to Lose” approach to the illness was embodied in the way the Crusaders scratched out two runs in the eighth inning to defeat Wesclin 5-4 and win the Class 2A Dupo Baseball Regional championship.
“It was a thriller, man ... the guys fight,” said Althoff senior Austin Keen, who drew a leadoff walk in the eighth and scored the tying run after throwing seven strong innings on the mound. “Our motto has been ‘Refuse to Lose’ after (Mike) Kelley passed away and he’s giving us a little bit of a boost. (We) did refuse to lose, to come out and get two in the bottom of the eighth. That’s why you play baseball.”
Keen coaxed a leadoff walk in the eighth and stole second, leading Wesclin coach John Groennert to replace starter Jared Timmermann with reliever Jarad Steenbergen. Ben Hankammer hit a hard grounder back to the pitcher, who had Keen caught in a rundown before Keen danced his way safely back to second.
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Althoff catcher Bret Silvestri tried to bunt both runners over, but he also reached safely on a controversial close play at first to load the bases. Jake Frazier tied the game 4-4 with an RBI single to right, then Steenbergen walked Seth Bertelsman with the bases loaded to force in the winning run.
“His motto was ‘Refuse to Lose’ and that’s what we did today,” Althoff coach Brett Isaacs said. “It looked bleak there and we had the right kids up.”
Althoff (19-8) will face Central in the semifinals of the Vandalia Sectional at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Wesclin had just taken a 5-4 lead in the top of the eighth when Brent Lengacher tripled and scored on a one-out sacrifice fly by Quinn Belva off of Hankammer.
After the game, Isaacs presented Kelley’s old Crusaders baseball jersey to Kelley’s father, Randy Kelley. There was an emotional embrace repeated again with Mike Kelley’s younger brother, former Althoff catcher Tom Kelley, who also was in attendance.
“They had the blue one and I went and searched for the white one because I noticed at the funeral the other day they had a picture of him in that white one,” Isaacs said, fighting back tears. “Luckily we still had it. I wanted them to have it and I’ve been carrying it in my bag ever since. I’m just very happy they were able to come out here today.”
Many of the players know Kelley and also about his fight against the disease that eventually claimed his life.
“It carries a lot of weight,” Isaacs said. “Mike was a true soldier for what he went through and his battle with cancer. It’s been a rough 10 days for me to watch their family go through that. Hopefully they find a better place soon.”