The Muscatine Road Runners went from eliminated to final six.
They now join the Muscatine Flames in the second weekend of the Iowa Amateur Baseball Association state tournament, marking the furthest the Flames have advanced since they replaced the Muscatine Red Sox, who ceased operations after the 2013 season.
"I think we just play a lot better as a team as a whole down the stretch," Flames pitcher/manager Travis Parker said. "I think the strength of schedule has really played a role. There's been about five or six years in a row where we got paired up with the team that actually won the tournament, so we had to face the champs the first weekend, and we would lose.
"This year, we lost to a really good team, Williamsburg, but the other two teams we were able to handle. So we came out with two wins and one loss in the double elimination tournament."
The Flames will open the weekend with a noon game Saturday against the Red Top at Norway. A win in that one would earn them a matchup with the Walford Hogs at 4 p.m.
"Really, we had some banged up guys this weekend, so I just told them to take care of their bodies, rest up and get refocused for this weekend," Parker said. "We're a pretty laid-back team, we like to have fun and compete, so I try not to make it too much of a stressful situation."
On the other side of the bracket, the Road Runners will open with the Norway Bandits at 2 p.m. Saturday. The winner of that one will face the Williamsburg Red Sox at 6 p.m.
Randy Rosa, the player/manager for the Road Runners, didn't expect to be in the tournament after finishing the season 5-15.
The Palmer Dragons had originally qualified, but after graduation, their players had to return home, Rosa said.
They approached the Road Runners to see if they wanted to replace them as the 12th team in the tournament, and Rosa's squad accepted.
After struggling through the season with low numbers due to work commitments, Rosa now has a team of 15 that pulled off two upsets last weekend while capitalizing on its second life and advancing to the second weekend.
"We feel good," Rosa said. "We have experience, we're older, and we combine it with some young guys."
Rosa did joke, however, that with some older players on the team, playing three games in two days can be a little taxing.
"It hurts for us old guys, because after we play Saturday, the next day we don't feel good," Rosa said. "We have to take two ibuprofen and keep going. But it's fun."
How the Flames got here
Former Wilton high school prep Caleb Kaufmann, who's a left-handed pitcher at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, pitched a complete game while striking out 10 in a 4-1 opening win for the Muscatine Flames against the Watkins Mudhens. Muscatine graduate Isaac Schroeder drilled a three-run home run in the win.
"Huge clutch hit by Isaac put the pressure on them and then just a complete shutdown by Caleb was the key to Game 1," Parker said.
The Williamsburg Red Sox used a six-run fifth inning to blow past the Flames in the second game, winning 7-0. But Muscatine bounced back to win the third game on Sunday and earn a spot in the second weekend. Parker pitched five innings while allowing two unearned runs, Diego Iribarren hit a two-run home run and Columbus Community graduate Michael Allen earned a six-out save in the 5-2 victory over the Whiteside County Wildcats.
"Just good pitching and timely hitting, and that wins you ball games," Parker said.
How the Road Runners got here
Muscatine graduate Nate Holliday, who currently pitches at Des Moines Area Community College in Boone, Iowa, provided six solid innings on the mound, and Brian Rosario drove in two runs to help lead the 12-seeded Road Runners over the top-seeded Stars, 5-4, in the opener.
The Road Runners lost the second game to Walford, 2-1, despite getting another strong performance on the mound from Burlington native Jack Gray, who attends college at Carl Sandburg.
After falling behind 2-0 in the third game against Watkins, the Road Runners rallied to score four runs in the fifth and two in the sixth to secure a spot in the second weekend of the tournament.
"Mitch Smith, he pitched 6 1/3 innings," Rosa said of the Carl Sandburg starter. "He pitched really well, only gave up two runs."