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Prep baseball: Warriors fall in soggy season opener

May 15—MOUNT PLEASANT — When the Van Buren County baseball team last stepped on a diamond, they did so under sunny skies in Carroll at the Iowa High School State Baseball Tournament.

Things were a little different on Monday night in Mount Pleasant. The Warriors stepped onto the diamond at the Mapleleaf Sports Complex under cloudy, threatening skies.

Initially, Van Buren County was undaunted holding the Panthers without a run through the first two innings. Once the skies opened up in the third inning, however, Mount Pleasant drenched the Warriors in a barrage of runs scoring six runs in the third before adding 10 more runs in the fourth to put away a 16-4 season-opening win in just five innings in one of just a few games around the state to be played due to scattered thunderstorms moving throughout the state on Monday.

"It went from raining, to the sun coming back out, to the rain starting up again," Van Buren County senior T.J. Jirak said after catching most of the game, finally trading off the position with starting pitcher Maddix Kite in the fourth. "It got pretty muddy back there. The rain just made it worse. In the end, you just had to try and keep your composure. You couldn't let it mess with your head too much."

That was easier said than done as the Warriors finished their opening game committing five errors that led to five unearned runs for Mount Pleasant. After pitching two scoreless innings, Kite could not hold down the Panthers in the third allowing six of the 10 runs given up over 3 1/3 innings during Mount Pleasant's first scoring rally of the season.

The rally was also aided by six hit batters by Van Buren County pitching, four of which were hit by Kite before handing the ball over to Jirak in the fourth. Mount Pleasant (1-0) kept right on tacking runs on the board as all five batters faced by the starting catcher for the Warriors reached and scored allowing the Panthers to build a commanding 14-run lead.

"It started to get tough late in the third, but I don't want to use the weather as the excuse," Van Buren County head baseball coach Shane Begley said. "We made some mistakes. It happens in baseball. We're going to learn from it and be better next time."

The Warriors are coming off a memorable run to last year's state baseball tournament, the fourth trip in school history, going 26-4 including a thrilling 6-4 upset win in the substate finals over fourth-ranked Mid-Prairie won in the top of the seventh on a go-ahead two-run single by Izaak Loeffler.

Loeffler is back this season. So is Jirak, Lucas Fett and Tyler Stoltz who will be missing the first week of the regular season preparing to compete in multiple events at the Iowa High School State Track and Field meet. There will be new faces having to step in to roles left behind by all-state pitcher and infielder Jackson Manning as well as all-conference standout outfielders Anthony Duncan and Wyatt Mertens with Begley also stepping in for his first year as head coach taking over for Chad Scott, who led VBC to the program's four state tournament berths.

"I expect some big things out of our young guys. I thought they produced for the most part," Begley said. "We're not a team that's going to make any excuses. We're confident in the guys we have out there. We had some kids out there that had never played in a varsity game before."

One of those players, Blaine Benjamin, made quite an impact in his varsity debut. Benjamin led Van Buren County with three hits in three trips to the plate on Monday with a double, an RBI and a run scored.

"There were some nerves, for sure, but also a lot of excitement," Benjamin said. "When I got that first hit, it was like eating something really good. Like eating a good piece of candy. You just want to keep coming back for more of it."

Kinnick Millard also had a stellar varsity debut for Van Buren County (0-1), going 2-3 with two runs driven in for the Warriors. Freshman outfielder Will Cocherell went 1-2 with a run scored while Jirak added a hit and run in the season opener.

"We can still keep building on what we had last year. There's no reason not to strive for excellence," Jirak said. "We can still work towards that final goal of making it back to state. It just comes down to execution and avoiding the mistakes. We just need to stay on our feet so we can keep moving forward."

— Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.