BIG ROCK – A few weeks before the Hiawatha baseball team made program history by winning their first regional championship, Hiawatha baseball coach Sean Donnelly gathered his team in a classroom before practice and pulled up a video.
The Hawks were in the midst of a hitting slump and their first of two losses to Hinckley-Big Rock had taken them out of the Little Ten Conference race. Donnelly showed them the final out of last year's Class 4A baseball state championship, when Oak Park-River Forest won with a walk-off hit and the team charged out of the dugout and mobbed the batter who knocked home the winning run.
“It was to re-emphasize with them, 'Guys, we can still do this and we're going to do it,” Donnelly said.
“I just showed them, here's the final out, look how they celebrate. This is what we're going to do. They hadn't done it, so we're going to teach them, 'This is how we're going to act when we win this game.”
After Hiawatha pitcher Tyler Burger recorded the final out of Saturday's 6-5 win in the Class A Hinckley-Big Rock Regional championship win over Hinckley-Big Rock, the Hawks charged out of the dugout and mobbed Burger before knocking him over and piling on top of him. The celebration was almost an exact replica of the video.
“It hurt, I had a lot of knees to the side,” Burger said, “but it was probably the best feeling I've ever felt in my whole life.”
Just a few innings earlier, the Hawks' regional championship looked as unlikely as ever.
The Royals (18-9-1) charged to a 2-0 lead in the first inning after Mitch Ruh drove in Jake Shrader with a double before Luke Winkle drove in Ruh with a sacrifice fly. The Royals tacked on two more runs in the third to take a 4-0 lead, and the Royals were in position to win their third consecutive game against the Hawks.
The nervous Hawks were quiet in the dugout after H-BR surged out to their early lead, and Donnelly knew that had to change.
“I told them, 'Guys, you're uptight,'” Donnelly said. “'We've got to loosen up, we've got to start having fun, we've got to start joking.' I told one guy on our bench, Will [Corn], 'Start making up rhymes to get the guys laughing.' Then look what happens.”
With a looser dugout, the Hawks (10-8-2) began picking up momentum.
In the fourth, Allen Letterer drove in Jace Williams and Donald Giebel with a double to inch closer. After H-BR tacked on another run, Taylor Edwards drove in Corn in the fifth. Corn was intentionally walked to load the bases in the sixth inning, but Mike Mercado followed with a bases-clearing double, driving in Nick Doolittle, Ed Canchola and Corn to take the lead.
The Royals loaded the bases in the seventh inning, but made back-to-back outs to give the Hawks their first regional championship.
“We're disappointed obviously,” H-BR coach Brad Unger said. “Our goal was to set out and win the regional, just like their's was. We had our chances and didn't execute.”
The Hawks have been underdogs for most of the season, but Corn never doubted their ability to pull off Saturday's historic win.
“I had a feeling that our team was going to pick it up,” Corn said. “It feels amazing. We've come from behind and battled back all year. It's been crazy.”