DES MOINES - Wearing the proverbial bull's-eye on their jerseys, the #1 Cherokee Braves withstood a stern challenge from a solid, cranked-up Okoboji team to claim a 7-3 win in the opening Class 2A quarterfinal round of the Iowa State Baseball Championships here Saturday afternoon.
With the 29-1 Braves, the defending 2A State Champions and second seed at this year's State Tournament, uncharacteristically commtting three errors in a deplorable third inning that led to the 22-9 Pioneers' three runs, it looked gloomy for the classy Cherokee club and their legion of faithful fans.
However, an enormous 6-run sixth inning was keyed by a gate-opening triple by gritty Mark Johnson, and a 2-run single by a courageous Kyle Ruehle that gave the Braves the lead for good at 4-3. We say courageous because it was starting pitcher Ruehle's two errors in the third that helped the Pioneers amass a 3-0 lead that they held into the fourth inning.
Trailing 3-0 in the fourth, Cherokee's Cody Ege walked, stole second, advanced to third on a fielder's choice, and scored on a passed ball to make it 3-1. Up to that point, Ege had Cherokee's lone hit against Okoboji pitcher Ray Zalabowski, a talented sophomore hurler who had fashioned a 7-1 record this year.
After a scoreless fifth, the Braves got to Zalabowski when Matt Koch was hit by a pitch, and Mark Johnson then riveted a triple into right center to score Koch and make it 3-2. Ege then coaxed another walk and stole second before Ruehle atoned with his huge 2-run single down the right field line that plated Johnson and Ege. Ruehle stole second and then scored on a single by Tim Jones to make it 5-3. That was followed by Scott Brown's superb 2-run single to left that tallied Jones and speedy Kyle Schuett, who had bunted for a single and stole second.
With a 7-3 lead, Cherokee's winning pitcher Matt Koch shut down the Pioneers three-up, three-down in the top of the seventh. Koch relieved Ruehle in the third and was masterful, allowing no runs on one bloop hit, no walks, and six strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings. Ruehle pitched 2 2/3 innings and gave up three runs on four hits and no walks, with two strikeouts.
Zalabowski pitched 5 1/3 innings and allowed three runs on just two hits and three walks, with four Ks. Reliever Lucas Budrow took the loss for Okoboji and pitched 2/3 an inning and gave up four runs on four hits and one walk.
Leading hitters for Cherokee were Ruehle 1-3 with two RBI, Brown 1-3 with two RBI, Johnson 1-3 with an RBI triple, Tim Jones 1-2 with an RBI, Schuett 1-2 with a run scored, and Ege 1-1 with two walks and two runs scored.
The Braves hit some hard balls against Zalabowski, with Okoboji recording a dozen outs on deep fly balls to the outfield that were just too high to find the gap, except for Johnson's timely triple that ignited the Braves. Tyler Jones, the Braves super lead-off hitter, hit three warning track fly balls for outs that just couldn't find the gap.
"Give Okoboji credit," said a relieved Cherokee coach Scott Koch. "They came ready to play and their pitcher kept us off balance for five innings. They played a great game."
The Braves now advance to the 2A semifinals at 2 p.m. Thursday against third-seed Solon, a 33-9 team that beat Waterloo Columbus 4-0 in their quarterfinal battle before the Cherokee-Okoboji game here Saturday.
The Spartans play in the Eastern Iowa Hawkeye Conference and were rated #8 in the final Iowa Baseball Coaches poll.