Like any baseball coach, Meridian’s Steve Slesk is a stickler for fundamentals.
“We talk execution all the time,” Slesk said. “That’s what we’re about. I believe we’re very fundamentally sound.”
But for the first five innings of the Class 1A Bi-District Tournament championship game on Saturday, May 16, Slesk’s team simply couldn’t get a bunt down. He might as well have been ordering Chinese takeout, as each time he called for one, balls dribbled foul, got lifted into the screen at Joe Martin Field or were just flat-out missed, and a lead runner even got thrown out on a sacrifice attempt.
But when it mattered most, with the district title on the line and either a long trip to Castle Rock or short one to Anacortes for next week’s regional round of the state tournament hanging in the balance, the Trojans came through with three gigantic, perfectly executed bunts in the space of four pitches to grab a 2-1 victory over Nooksack Valley.
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“Yeah, it wasn’t happening for us,” Slesk said. “We work hard at that small-ball game. And execution won it, and it will. The team that executes is going to win. Both pitchers were plenty good today. Whoever executes wins the ballgame.”
Locked in a 1-1 tie entering the bottom of the sixth inning, Slesk gave leadoff hitter Dalton Biehle — a speedy senior who Slesk said has been working on bunting for base hits — the sign for a drag bunt with one strike.
“He gave me the drag sign, so I went up there to the back of the plate, like you’re supposed to,” Biehle said. “Since I’m left-handed, I put it down the third-base line, like you’re supposed to, and executed the bunt to go to first.”
Slesk then called for Brady Moore to sacrifice Biehle to second, and Moore delivered another perfect bunt.
After a wild pitch, Biehle stood 90 feet away from scoring the go-ahead run with Tanner Tutterrow at the plate.
“It’s the easiest run in high school baseball if you’ve got a guy that can get the ball down, and Tanner’s that guy,” Slesk said. “So there was no question.”
Tutterow delivered a third fundamentally perfect bunt, allowing Biehle to race home on the sacrifice.
“Execution is key,” Biehle said. “(Slesk) put it on right after I got to third. It was unexpected. The catcher, Curtis Handy, didn’t know, and Tanner put it out there, and that was a great play by Tutt.”
While Biehle was elated to score the winning run for Meridian, he definitely felt compassion for the Pioneers after seeing them come so close to the district crown.
One year ago, Biehle was right beside them, wearing purple, and the team had high hopes with he and Saturday’s starter Noah Rawls on the mound, Biehle said. But Biehle’s family unexpectedly moved to the Meridian school district, completing a Northwest Conference 1A tour that saw him play as a freshman and sophomore at Lynden Christian.
“Hats off to them — they almost got their first district title in their history,” Biehle said of his former teammates at Nooksack. “I wished I would have been a part of it, but it’s how it is. I’m here with Meridian, and I got my first district title, now.”
Meridian starter Derek Campfield made sure of that, as he retired the Pioneers in order in the top of the seventh to wrap up a complete game in which he did not allow an earned run, struck out seven and held the Pioneers to four hits and three walks.
“I thought he threw well,” Slesk said. “He was dominant that first inning, and then he started to let up a little bit and just tried to force things a little too much, which kind of hurt him a little bit. He wasn’t as sharp hitting his spots today, but I thought he pitched well enough to win.”
The same could be said of Rawls, who also went the distance, limiting Meridian to three hits and two walks while striking out four.
But Rawls’ offense didn’t convert an opportunity to open up a bigger lead in the third inning.
After Tanner Myhre stole third and scored the game’s first run on an error in the second inning, the Pioneers got a one-out triple from Brady Wood and loaded the bases in the third, but they failed to push home a run in the frame.
“We had the right guys up,” Nooksack coach Scott Gelwicks said. “It was the heart of the order. I mean we had the bases loaded and the middle of the order, we should be able to get a couple runs here. If we go up three runs, it’s a lot easier to play.”
But without those runs, Meridian was able to tie things up in the bottom of the third when Biehle doubled in Erick Price from first base with a shot into the right-center gap.
Both teams move on to the regional round of the 1A state tournament on Saturday, May 23.
With the win, Meridian gets to stay closer to home at Volunteer Field in Anacortes and will play at 1 p.m. first-round game against the District 3 No. 3 seed — either Vashon Island or Cascade Christian. Nooksack Valley, meanwhile, heads to Castle Rock and will play a 10 a.m. first-round game against District 4 No. 3 seed Montesano, which beat Castle Rock 19-10 on Saturday to advance to state.
Gelwicks said he has no special speeches planned to motivate his team for its first state appearance since 2007.
“Pretty much the same thing I told them this week — I told them that I want them to think about why you do a high school sport, why you play baseball,” Gelwicks said. “In a game like this, you’re not just playing for yourself. You’re playing for everyone else that has come along — from playing for your parents that have dragged your butt all around to the school to everyone else at Nooksack. ... You’re playing for every kid that played baseball here and didn’t get this far, and that’s important. These guys are playing with a lot of heart and desire. We want it. I’m very proud of these guys.”
Meridian 2, Nooksack Valley 1
WP: Derek Campfield. LP: Noah Rawls. Highlights: Nooksack Valley: Tanner Myhre 1-3, 2 SB, Cole Mattice 1-3, 2B; Brady Wood 2-3, 3B. Meridian: Dalton Biehle 2-2, R, RBI; Tanner Tutterrow 0-1, GW RBI; Thomas Utschinski 1-2, Erick Price 0-1, R.