Players knew big season awaited

Aidan Rath celebrates scoring a run in Wednesday’s substate final when Mid-Prairie defeated Central Lee 9-7 to advance to the state tournament. (Doug Brenneman/Union)
Aidan Rath celebrates scoring a run in Wednesday’s substate final when Mid-Prairie defeated Central Lee 9-7 to advance to the state tournament. (Doug Brenneman/Union)

WELLMAN — All they needed was a chance. It seemed the coronavirus would deprive them of that. When a shortened season was announced, the Golden Hawks knew thay had to seize the opportunity.

Mid-Prairie’s baseball players just needed a chance to prove themselves. Last year’s team lost by a run in the district final to a West Branch team that made it to state.

Although that season ended with a record of 18-12, the Golden Hawks had a feeling something big was possible.

“Getting to play this year was a big thing for us especially coming off last year’s close game in the district final,” senior leader Brad Tornow said. “A lot of us thought about that a lot and kept talking about it the whole entire year. Then the coronavirus hit and killed everything, so we were upset but just for a while because when we learned we get to play, we knew we would have a good team and have a good time and have fun together.”

They also would get that chance they needed. They avenged that district final result (7-6 loss at West Branch) in their first postseason game, a 12-2 win. The district final this year was a 7-5 victory over West Liberty. The 9-7 substate win over Central Lee put Mid-Prairie in the state tournament, where they play West Lyon at 1:30 p.m. today..

“I would say the big difference between this year and last year is our mentality,” senior outfielder Chris Miller said. “We are a lot more focused and want to win more. We hate losing.”

Only Cale Robertson and Ashton Bush were lost to graduation from last year‘s team, so there was a belief that with so many players returning, potential was unlimited. “It was the end of last year when we thought we could do this,” Tornow said. “The thought we could get to state just carried throughout the year with everyone. We had the expectation.”

“Our mind-set is the difference,” Miller said. “We are a lot sharper mentally.”

The sharpness shows physically.

Aiden Rath has a batting average of .586, third best in Class 2A. Others are Tornow at .400, Monte Slabaugh at .328, eighth-grader Karson Grout at .327, No. 9 hitter Miller at .317, Kayden Reinier at .302, Vinny Bowlin .296, Keegan Gingerich .255 and Will Cavanagh at .250. That’s pretty strong through nine players.

The Iowa High School Basebll Coaches Association knew there was something about these Golden Hawks, ranking then at No. 10 in the Class 2A preseason poll.

“We didn’t think much of the rankings,” junior first baseman Rath said. “Anybody can come out and beat you. We knew that couldn’t let it affect us and we would just play our hardest.”

Despite starting the season with more losses than wins, the Hawks continued to believe in themselves. The final poll had them at No. 6.

“We’ve been playing well the whole season,” senior pitcher Slabaugh said. “I think it was eye-opening to see the couple games that we lost because it was teams that we are probably better than.”

After a split with Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont and a home loss to Tipton (which finished with a 5-11 record), Mid-Prairie’s record was 2-3. M-P won its next five games, then lost to Class 3A Solon in eight innings.

“That was close, but to see that we can play with a team like that shows that we can play against anyone,” Slabaugh said. “The Eddyville loss helped us a little bit, opened our eyes. It showed us anyone can beat anyone. I think the first game (a 15-2 win) showed that we were a better team than they were.”

It’s important to have a leader that knows what and when a team needs and Tornow does that.

“For some people, you have to be quiet and straightforward while other people are goofing around and cracking jokes,” Tornow said. “I’ve been with the guys for most of the time so a lot of it is knowing what gets guys ready to go.”

Rath spent the down time when no school or sports were happening trying to get his teammates to the batting cages. He also had a special advantage in a family member.

“I think it does help having my dad throw to me,” Rath said. “He takes time out of his day to come help me and it makes a difference for me.”

That difference has led to a batting average of .600, best in Class 2A and fourth in the state.

“I never thought there was a game that we would not win,” Rath said. “I have faith in my teammates and that helps me think that we can come out of anything. We can win no matter how bad the situation is.”