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Blacksox move on to state

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Underdog Freeman qualifies with thrilling come-from-behind win over Irene; will play Flandreau Saturday night

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    With his team up a run over Crofton, player/manager Jake Weier leads of second base.

When Lance Friesen thinks about life’s greatest moments, he always comes back to February of 1999, when he was a junior at Freeman High School. The Flyers boys basketball team was facing Tripp-Delmont in the district championship game and Friesen’s hot hand in the second quarter helped Freeman pull well ahead of the Wildcats at the half. Running off the court and into the locker room was such a surge of energy and emotion that it is forever etched in Friesen’s mind.

“Marriage, kids, halftime of the Tripp game — those are pretty much at the top,” said Friesen.

Let’s just go ahead and add The Irene Game to list.

Playing in his first year for the Freeman Blacksox, the 37-year-old rookie hit a go-ahead grand slam in the eighth inning of the District 6B Amateur Baseball Tournament loser’s bracket game against Irene Thursday night, Aug. 1 that highlighted a wild come-from-behind win and gave the local town team its ticket to state.

Freeman will play Flandeau at Mitchell’s Cadwell Park Saturday, Aug. 10 in a contest scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.

“Games like that make you wake up pretty happy the next morning,” said Friesen, who stepped to the plate with the bases loaded after Freeman had already scored two runs to cut Irene’s lead to 7-4. “Going up to that at bat, I was just thinking I’ve got to keep it going; make solid contact.”

Friesen got a good read on an inside fastball and turned on it, drilling it over the left field fence to clear the bases and put his team in front for the first time all game.

Freeman player/manager Jake Weier was on third base at the time and knew that his team needed to keep getting runners on base and chipping away at an Irene lead that had been 7-1.

“We just needed a walk or another single; I didn’t think he was going to hit a grand slam.”

Weier said that, even though Friesen made solid contact, he didn’t initially think the ball would clear the fence. Maybe off the wall. Maybe a long flyball out.

“I was going back to tag and that’s when I realized that, ‘I don’t think that ball is going to be caught,’” said Weier, who described his emotion as “pure joy” as he crossed home plate. “I just couldn’t believe we had the lead.”

When asked what he thought as he circled the bases, Friesen said, “I might need a thesaurus. Your whole body is like, ‘Yeah!’ Just pure joy. It was a great moment that turned everything instantly.”

Freeman added another run in the eighth to make it 9-7; 11 men batted that inning.

Irene got one run back in the bottom of the eighth to make it 9-8, but a Brett Scherschilgt two-out single in the top of the ninth scored Lee Scherschligt and gave Freeman an insurance run that they wouldn’t need.

Phil Madsen, who came on to pitch in the fifth inning, retired the Cardinals in order in their final at bat to end the game.

“I’m just as shocked as anybody,” Weier said of Freeman’s ability to overcome a lackluster first six innings and respond with that memorable seventh. “Our heads were down; things weren’t going the way we wanted them to go, that’s for sure.”

But walks, an Irene error and timely singles turned the tables in that key inning, all of which led up to Friesen’s grand slam and another trip to state. The Blacksox missed the tournament last year but were a qualifier in both 2017 and 2016.

“Those guys have worked so hard and have been playing a lot longer than me, so to help them get back state is just wonderful,” Friesen said. “It felt really good to contribute to their happiness.”

Freeman’s dramatic win over Irene last Thursday highlighted a fun and successful district tournament for the underdog Blacksox. The amateur team made up almost entirely of veteran players won just three games during the regular season and entered the postseason as the South Central League’s No. 8 team.

Still, Brett Scherschligt believed in the team because of its chemistry within. “We really are a team, and that’s the part I enjoy,” he said. “It’s a fun group and I thought it would pay off.”

THE CROFTON GAME

It all started with an upset win in the opening round of the tournament, when Freeman outlasted No. 1 Crofton 6-5 Thursday, July 25. It was the first of three thrilling games for the Blacksox that saw Mitch Wollmann lay down a go-ahead sacrifice bunt in the sixth inning and Scherschligt turned in a two-out RBI single in the ninth to help give Freeman the 6-5 win.

“Win when it matters, even though we haven’t had many of them,” said the veteran slugger, who not only delivered a big RBI in the ninth, but also made the final out on a strong throw from third to first with the Bluejays threatening to spoil the night for Freeman. “This is the biggest win we’ve had in a long time. Everybody contributed.”

Good at-bats helped give the Blacksox a 4-1 lead by the fourth inning, but Crofton responded with a string of hits in the middle innings to tie the game. Wollmann’s sacrifice bunt gave Freeman a 5-4 lead in the top of the sixth, and Wollmann scored on Scherschligt’s RBI single in the ninth to make it a 6-4 game — a critical insurance run considering the Bluejays got one back in the bottom of the ninth.

But it was veteran starting pitcher Nate Broehm who played a major part in Freeman’s win. The 38-year-old held a good Crofton team scoreless in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings to keep the Blacksox out in front, and then survived a tense ninth inning that included a Freeman error, a groundball out, a walk, an infield fly rule out and infield sacrifice fly before Scherschligt recorded the final groundball out.

“He’s got some great stuff; I’m glad we don’t have to hit him,” said Weier, who like Scherschligt talked about how much fun the game was. “All the way, through and through. These are the kinds of games you live for, especially when you can finish them off in the end.”

FREEMAN FACES MENNO

The win over Crofton paired the Blacksox with No. 5 Menno in the semifinals in a rubber match; Freeman beat the Mad Frogs 6-1 on July 16 while Menno took down Freeman 11-1 in its Fourth of July game.

The Tuesday, July 30 battle was as good as they come, with both teams eyeing a win and that automatic state tournament berth. It was also a classic rivalry showdown between a pair of South Central League towns that also battle as part of the Cornbelt Conference on the high school level.

And back and forth they went.

Menno nabbed a 1-0 lead in the second inning, but Freeman responded in the top of the third on a two-run home run from Scherschligt to take a 2-1 advantage, and then went up 3-1 in the top of the fifth on a throwing error to first.

The Mad Frogs got a run back in the bottom of the sixth on a Tyler Pekarek single that scored Tate Bruckner from second, and then in the seventh inning, took a 4-3 lead on a sacrifice groundout by Macon Oplinger and then a sacrifice flyout by Cody Ulmer.

Menno appeared poised to win it in the bottom of the ninth, but Phil Madsen hit a two-out double down the first base line and Jake Weier knocked him in on a line drive single to center to make it 4-4.

Menno and Freeman played scoreless ball the next inning-and-a-half, but the Mad Frogs finished it off in the bottom of the 11th when Ulmer walked, advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Oplinger and then scored on a throwing error to claim the win.

That put Freeman down but not out. The Blacksox either needed a win over Irene in their next game or — if that didn’t come — a victory in an elimination game over the weekend. Of course, Friesen and Company got the job done in thrilling fashion over the No. 6 Cardinals, who ended up missing out on state after an 11-1 loss to No. 2 Tabor on Sunday.

Freeman will play a good Flandreau team in the first round of state on Saturday.

“It’s not a great draw,” said Weier, who notes that the Flandreau squad includes a number of baseball players from Augustana University and is aggressive on the bases. “But it’s state; anything can happen.”