Mike Mercado trembled with nervousness in the batter’s box.
The Hiawatha junior had faced Hinckley-Big Rock with the bases loaded earlier this season and wanted a shot at redemption.
It came with a three-RBI double that squirted past a diving right fielder and brought the Hawks their first regional title with a 6-5 win against the Royals on Saturday in the Class 1A Hinckley-Big Rock Regional.
“The feeling when the ball got down was unreal,” Mercado said. “I was in the same situation the last time we played H-BR. Will Corn was intentionally walked and I came up. I grounded out to the pitcher in that at-bat and didn’t want that to happen again. I was still the most nervous I’d ever been in my whole life. It wasn’t the best hit I ever had, but it was easily the most important.”
As coach Sean Donnelly addressed the Hiawatha baseball team at the Hawks’ spring sports banquet Tuesday, he handed out the usual awards. But, for the first time in school history, the Hawks (11-8-2) advanced to sectionals and a final summation of the season couldn’t be made.
The Hawks play at 4 p.m. today in a Class 1A River Ridge Sectional semifinal against Aquin.
“We are in uncharted waters,” Donnelly said. “I hope we are still excited. The mood needs to stay light in the dugout. That’s when we are best – playing loose and free.”
It still is not decided if No. 1 pitcher Tyler Burger or Mercado will get the start against the Bulldogs (17-2), who were the top seed in the Dakota Regional. Like Hiawatha, success is a recent phenomenon to the Aquin program.
The Bulldogs posted their first winning season three years ago and have been on an upward trajectory ever since. The learning curve it takes to be a successful program year after year is a feat that Donnelly is familiar.
“It sounds silly,” Donnelly said, “but we needed to learn how to win. How to deal with the success and higher expectations that came with it.”
Tight play caught up to the Hawks for three innings against H-BR in the regional title game. The Hawks were down 4-0. Donnelly noticed Hiawatha wasn’t enjoying the game. The gravity of the moment had worn them down.
“We really came out flat,” Donnelly said. “We took the game too serious. The moment was too big for us because we were pressing. Once we loosened up, it carried into our at-bats and we were able to string together hits.”
The late season run to a regional title came after the Hawks were disappointed with four consecutive losses – two to H-BR – that knocked them out of the Little Ten Conference title race. The experience only strengthened the Hawks’ resolve to advance in the postseason.
“The losses actually helped,” Mercado said. “We wanted to get back those two losses we had to H-BR. We had a lot of confidence going into that regional title game. We showed even if we are down, we can keep our heads up and come back.”