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HAMPSHIRE – All game long, Sycamore's defense had been nearly flawless. It was an aspect of the game the Spartans felt great about before Saturday's Class 3A Hampshire Regional baseball final against Burlington Central.
But in the sixth and seventh innings, it let the Spartans down when they needed it most. Three errors led to two runs over the final two frames, including the game-winning, walk-off single by Riley Jensen to give the Rockets a 4-3 win and the regional title.
In the sixth, a Fred Beltrame error at second base that allowed Reed Hunnicutt to reach base was followed by a wild throw on a Zach Ranney bunt from catcher Clark O'Donnell that allowed Hunnicutt to score and tie the game at three. Alec Kozak's throwing error at shortstop in the seventh allowed Blake Alexander to reach first base before Jensen plated him to end Sycamore's season.
"Fred's our best defensive player. He has been from Day 1. That's his third error of the year," Sycamore coach Jason Cavanaugh said. "He's a great defensive player and for whatever reason that throw just got away from him. Clark's our second-best defensive player and for whatever reason, bad throws. High school kids make bad throws."
O'Donnell said it was a tough loss to take for the second-seeded Spartans (21-13), who had taken the lead in the top of the sixth on an RBI single from sophomore first baseman Nathan Haacker that scored Matt Godinsky.
"We've played good defense all year, just happened to come and bite us at the wrong time," O'Donnell said. "You've got the play at first. You've got myself throwing the ball away. You've got plenty of opportunities that are missed there that we could have taken the lead on and given ourselves a little more insurance."
Top-seeded Burlington Central, which advanced to Thursday's Sycamore Sectional semifinals, had several chances to score off Sycamore starter Cole Nelson. But Nelson, who struck out two in 4 2/3 innings, pitched his way out of jams with help from his defense. His offense staked him to an early 1-0 lead when Cooper Vinz hit an RBI single to score Haacker.
"We dodged bullets all day long," Cavanaugh said. "They had three rockets at the left fielder and one at the right fielder. Somehow we're ahead in this game, despite the fact that we have a bloop single, a 17-hopper through the left side. I don't even know how we were ahead."
Senior reliever Will Olson got the Spartans out of their biggest jam, relieving Nelson with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth. Olson proceeded to strike out Kevin Zasada to get out of the threat.
"Will did great. He said in warmups that his arm was feeling really good," O'Donnell said. "He told coach that if we needed him he'd be ready to throw. You saw him come in there to get a huge strikeout."
The Spartans lose six seniors off this year's squad, including O'Donnell.
"Just the feeling of dirt under your cleats is always a great feeling," O'Donnell said. "It just hurts to go out like this."