Althoff’s bats finally came to life Monday, but it proved to be too late.
Teutopolis right-hander Louis Niemerg blanked the Crusaders for six innings, then wriggled out of a seventh-inning jam to preserve the Wooden Shoes’ 4-1 victory in the championship game of the Class 2A Vandalia Sectional.
“He was good,” Althoff senior Ben Hankammer said of Niemerg, who allowed one run (earned) on five hits, walked none and struck out four. “He did a good job of mixing it up and he threw pretty hard. You’ve got to give him credit. He did a good job keeping us off-balanced.
“That seventh inning, we were just a couple of hits away. That’s kind of been our thing all year. We just kind of grind it out and battle. We’re all real proud of what we’ve done with this team and how far we’ve come. It’s been an incredible run.”
It was the sixth consecutive sectional title for Teutopolis (30-5-1), which will play Du Quoin in the Sauget Super-Sectional at 5 p.m. Tuesday at GCS Ballpark. The Indians defeated Nashville 5-2 in the championship game of the Nashville Sectional.
Althoff applied pressure to Niemerg in the seventh, as Hankammer homered to right-center with one out to make it 4-1. It was the Crusaders’ first home run of the season.
One out later, junior Jake Frazier singled and senior Casey Arnold doubled into the left-field corner. After a meeting on the mound with Wooden Shoes coach Justin Fleener, Niemerg retired junior Stephen Toenjes on a grounder to second for the final out.
“Really, the game just didn’t go the way we needed it to,” said Althoff coach Brett Isaacs, whose team finished 20-9. “They got out to a lead, then it’s tough for us to play a running game, and that’s how we score. We’re not a home-run team. One of the things we needed to do is get a leadoff man on, and we never got a leadoff man on all day. That hurt us because it took away our running game.”
The Wooden Shoes got the only runs they needed in the first when catcher Jordan Thoele jumped on an 0-2 fastball from Crusaders senior Austin Keen, driving it far over the wall in left to make it 2-0. Teutopolis added insurance in the sixth when designated hitter Austin Hartke hit a two-run homer to left-center on a 3-1 offering from Keen, making it 4-0.
Niemerg recorded 11 ground-ball outs and didn’t surrender his first hit until one out in the fourth when Keen singled. Keen, however, was picked off base by Niemberg, and after a single by Hankammer, senior Bret Silvestri popped out to second.
“I felt good out there,” Niemerg said. “(My teammates) made some plays for me. That was impressive. All my pitches were working the way I wanted them to. Mr. Fleener has been preaching all year: no walks, great defense. That’s what we need to do to win ballgames.”
Niemerg also walked twice and scored each time on the home runs by Thoele and Hartke.
“We were hoping to put quality at-bats together to be able to put ourselves in position to score,” Fleener said. “I wasn’t going out there with the idea that we were going to hit home runs. (We wanted) quality at-bats. Try to barrel up some balls and put ourselves in position to do some good.”
Isaacs second-guessed the pitch selection to Thoele in the first and Hartke in the sixth.
“I give (Thoele) a lot of credit because we went up and tried to get above his hands,” Isaacs said. “As hard as Austin throws, we thought we would be able to get him to chase. That kid got his hands to it, and you don’t see that very often as hard as Austin throws. I don’t fault Austin for that; that’s my call. He put it where we wanted him to and that kid hit it.
“We should have gone with a slider (against Hartke), but we chose fastball because we were behind in the count. It was probably a poor choice on my part. They rely on the home-run ball and we rely on speed. It’s two totally different teams. The long ball got us today.”
Keen allowed four runs (earned) on six hits in six innings, with two walks and five strikeouts. Hankammer worked a scoreless seventh, giving Althoff a chance to rally.
“When you’re down 4-0 going to the seventh, it’s very easy to kind of give up,” Isaacs said. “Hank put a good swing on one and Jake and Casey did, too, to kind of get us in a situation where we had a chance. That’s all you really hope for, whatever the score is, to have a chance. We felt like we did. We just came up short.”