Prep Baseball & Softball

Belleville West edges Belleville East 6-5 in marathon regional semifinal thriller

Belleville West beats rival East with walkoff hit in 18th inning

Sophomore Hunter Grupe got the game-winning hit to score Luke Vallandingham in the 18th inning of the Belleville West Class 4A baseball regional. The Maroons won 6-5 and advance to a championship showdown with Southwestern Conference foe Edwardsvi
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Sophomore Hunter Grupe got the game-winning hit to score Luke Vallandingham in the 18th inning of the Belleville West Class 4A baseball regional. The Maroons won 6-5 and advance to a championship showdown with Southwestern Conference foe Edwardsvi

After 18 innings in a game that stretched over two days, it took a sophomore with only 13 varsity at-bats to send everyone home.

Hunter Grupe’s bloop single to left field drove in Luke Vallandingham with the winning run as Belleville West outlasted Belleville East 6-5 Friday in the semifinals of the Class 4A Belleville West Regional.

“You’re on the edge of your seat, fans are chirping,” Belleville West senior Cal Kossina said. “It’s just a fun atmosphere for the players and fans.”

That’s one way to describe a game that dragged out over two days and featured 11 consecutive scoreless innings before the Maroons finally managed to manufacture a run in the 18th inning.

“Somebody had to win, it might as well be us,” Belleville West coach Todd Baltz said of a game suspended because of darkness after a 5-5 tie through nine innings the day before. “We spent two full days here, might as well come out with a ‘W.’ Tip your hat to them as well as our guys, but that’s a good game.

“It was a matter of who was going to break or who was going to come up with a hit - and it was a flare to left field that ended up winning it.”

According to Illinois High School Association records, the 18-inning game was tied for seventh-longest in state history among games that had been reported. The record was a 24-inning game in 2004 between Evergreen Park and Ridgewood.

Belleville West (23-8) will face Edwardsville (29-7) in the regional championship at 11 a.m. Saturday. Edwardsville beat Belleville West 7-3 and 5-3 in Southwestern Conference games earlier this season.

Key sequences

Grupe entered the game in the sixth inning and went 0-for-5 before delivering the biggest hit of his young career. He was inadvertently headed-butted during the victory celebration and his face and uniform jersey were spattered with blood.

Before that plate appearance he had three hits in 13 at-bats with one RBI.

Vallandingham began the rally with a one-out single in the 18th off of Belleville East reliever Alex Phillips. Tai Kezerian also singled and the runners moved to second and third when the ball was bobbled in the outfield.

East coach Ryan Wiggs brought his right fielder in to fill another slot on the infield, but Grupe collected the game-winner when he deposited a hit just beyond the reach of three defenders in shallow left field.

“I knew they had an extra guy on the infield, so I knew I had to put it somewhere in the outfield,” said Grupe, who doubled his season RBI output with the game-winning hit. “It was a low and outside pitch, so I just went with it and got it out there.”

Another big moment occurred in the top of the 17th inning when West right fielder Austin “Buster” Guetterman threw out East’s Drew Millas at the plate. Millas tried to scored on a fly ball to right hit by Isaiah King.

“Drew looked like he was off the bag a little bit and he had to go back and tag, which he didn’t get the best jump on,” West catcher Cal Kossina said. “(Austin) just put it right on the money and I just scooped it and he was out. You couldn’t ask for a better throw than that.

“That’s a huge play. We probably lose the game without Austin’s play right there.”

Guetterman came up big despite never even swinging a bat.

“He gets DH’d for the whole game, pretty much all season, then comes up with maybe the biggest play of the game (by) throwing a guy out at the plate,” Baltz said.

Key performers

Jack Lanxon got the win in relief for West, pitching only the 18th inning. Vallandingham allowed five runs through seven innings as the starter.

Kossina caught the first seven innings, then pitched nine shutout innings — including two on Thursday — to keep the game tied. Wearing dirty, baggy pants that looked like they had been used to wash the mud off a four-wheel drive truck, Kossina allowed only two hits over nine innings and struck out 10.

He said he had to ask the coaches to pitch the 15th and 16th innings, then went back behind the plate to catch the final two innings.

“It was fun to be involved in every play, but it’s definitely taxing on your body,” Kossina said. “I just do what Coach Baltz says and he’s been making the right moves so far.”

East reliever Evan Lawrence was also sharp, holding the Maroons to five hits over 7 2/3 scoreless innings and striking out 10.

Wiggs and West coach Todd Baltz ran through their rosters getting nearly everyone into the game in one capacity or another. The teams battled to a 5-5 tie through nine innings on Thursday with the umpires finally postponing the game because of darkness.

The game resumed at 12:30 p.m. Friday, but the scoreless innings continued thanks to solid relief pitching and mostly solid defense..

“It was 18 innings, there were good plays throughout the game - yesterday and today,” said Wiggs, whose team finished 25-11. “It doesn’t feel too good right now, but I’m proud of every single one of our guys. They left it all on the line not only today, but all season.”

The Lancers best chance to get the go-ahead run came in the top of the 17 inning.

Millas reached on a leadoff single and went to second on a wild throw by West shortstop Buddy Gore. Jordan Yates followed with a single to left, but Wiggs held up Millas at third.

“It was a line drive past the third baseman and Drew had to stop to make sure it went through, which was the right thing,” Wiggs said. “He got kind of a late start and if (the left fielder) fields it cleanly, I don’t like our chances — and we didn’t have any outs at that point either. Obviously now I’m second-guessing it.”

The Lancers still got their opportunity on King’s fly ball to right, but Guetterman threw a strike to the plate to nail Millas.

Baltz said he had never been involved in a game like that at any level.

“Never. What’d it end up 18 innings, 19? I don’t even know what it was,” he said. “It was crazy. When they say anything can happen in the postseason, that just proves it right there.”

The Maroons used three pitchers to get the win and now faces a rested Edwardsville squad for the regional title.

“Not a lot of time to rest,” Baltz said. “We’ll hopefully be able to ride the momentum and the high of this but we’ll throw everything we’ve got out there tomorrow and just see what happens. That’s all you can do.”

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders

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