The Le Mars baseball team dogpiled twice on its home field Wednesday night. Celebratory fireworks exploded beyond right field after the final out.
But the state-qualifying banner left on the Sioux City Heelan bus.
Fifth-rated Le Mars was ruled to have used an ineligible pitcher, nullifying its apparent 8-5, 11-inning win and first trip to the state tournament. When the Iowa High School Athletic Association was informed, it ruled the game a forfeit and awarded top-rated Heelan a 7-0 victory, the Class 3-A, Substate 1 championship and its 15th state berth.
Le Mars senior Parker Rolfes had pitched nine innings in Monday’s 11-inning, 4-3 win over Sergeant Bluff-Luton. By rule, Rolfes was forced to take two calendar days of rest, meaning he wasn’t eligible to pitch again until Thursday. On Wednesday, he entered to start the seventh and pitched his team’s final five innings.
Heelan coach Andy Osborne said he knew Rolfes had gone deep into Monday’s game, but was unaware that he’d gone nine. He said he was alerted in the bottom of the 11th by a Heelan fan who’d been contacted by someone from Sergeant Bluff-Luton.
“We were right in the middle of live action,” Osborne said. “I’m kind of processing it. I’m trying to coach. We’re trying to stay alive.”
Osborne asked Activities Director Jason Pratt to contact Baseball Administrator Roger Barr of the IHSAA. Minutes later, Rolfes struck out the final batter with the bases loaded, igniting the second dogpile of the night by Le Mars (27-8).
“Our guys are just a wreck,” Osborne said. “There’s fireworks going off just past right field, no joke, like it’s the Fourth of July.”
Pratt, Le Mars Activities Director Larry Johnson and Le Mars coach Trent Eckstaine gathered in the press box and spoke with Barr by phone while the excited Bulldogs posed for photos on the field.
Osborne still hadn’t informed his team about what was going on. “I didn’t want to get their hopes up,” he said.
With the Heelan (34-4) players in right field, Pratt told Osborne in the dugout that the game was going to be ruled a forfeit. Osborne gathered his players and filled them in.
“It wasn’t a celebratory mood at all,” he said. “It was just like, what do we do with this? How do we process this?”
Soon the IHSAA website changed the score and winning team, making it official. While there were certainly hard feelings, Osborne commended everyone in the stadium.
“My fear was that it was going to turn ugly, and it never did,” he said.
In his 11 years working in the IHSAA office, Barr said a state baseball qualifier had never been reversed by a rule infraction.
“I want to make it clear: The athletic director from Le Mars, the athletic director from Sioux City Heelan and the coach from Le Mars were very, very professional,” he said. “They handled it very well. It’s just an unfortunate thing that took place.
“Our baseball coaches’ advisory committee is the one that puts the rules in, and it’s pretty clear-cut. ... There’s nobody that’s going to feel worse about this than that coach. I feel bad for him.”
To his credit, Eckstaine answered his phone on Thursday and didn’t attempt to deflect the blame.
“This whole thing falls back to me,” he said. “It’s my responsibility. The state clearly outlines it. They have sent numerous memos out. I’ve been coaching a long time. I know it’s there. I probably should have took a little more heed to it. The responsibility is on my shoulders.”
Eckstaine said he had received emails and calls from people in five states Thursday, including a representative of the Chicago White Sox. He appreciated the support, but said it still won’t get his players what he wanted most for them: a trip to state.
“I screwed up,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Le Mars also thought it had won the game in the ninth inning. Leading 5-3 with two outs and one on, a ground ball up the middle was fielded and fired to first. What followed was interpreted differently.
“The umpire never hesitated,” Osborne said. “He pointed at the bag and then called him safe. The first baseman was convinced that he was on the bag, thinks the game is over. He reacts accordingly. They sprint to the mound. You’ve got everybody associated with the Le Mars baseball program on a pile in the middle of the diamond. They’re going to state.”
The problem was that the ball was still live. Near third, Heelan runner Trenton Solsma initially thought the game was over. Tyler Stolen was still at first.
“It was just absolute chaos,” Osborne said. “I’m screaming at the top of my lungs to my baserunners to try to get them to advance. I’m frantically trying to find the ball. I knew the first baseman had the ball, but I couldn’t find him. I couldn’t see where he was. He’s probably underneath the pile.”
When order was restored, the runners remained at first and third. Again Heelan was one strike from defeat, but then Daulton Sauce tripled on a 3-2 pitch to tie the game.
“From the seventh inning on, it was the most surreal, wild experience I’ve ever had at a ballpark,” Osborne said. “Bar none. It was like a three-ring circus.”
Heelan earned the top seed and will play eighth-seeded Williamsburg (20-18) at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Principal Park in Des Moines. On Thursday morning, going on less than two hours of sleep, Osborne still wasn’t sure how to feel.
“I don’t know if there are any winners, to be honest with you,” he said. “You feel sick for the Le Mars kids. ... Those Le Mars kids battled their tails off. We’ve played some of the best teams in the state, and Le Mars is right at the top of that list.”
Especially in the social media age, the Heelan players won’t easily be able to distance themselves from the outcome, Osborne said.
“The thing for me is it’s going to be a constant distraction,” he said. “I feel bad for our kids in that it’s going to take away from everything that we’ve accomplished this year. Because we’ve had a tremendous year.
“I told our kids, ‘We didn’t do anything wrong. We’re not in the wrong here. We played the game by the rules that the state provided for us. And that’s the end of the story.’ ”