CASTLE ROCK — It was apparent from the get-go at Saturday’s 1A District Championship game that the Montesano Bulldogs and King’s Way Christian Knights were two sound, evenly-matched baseball teams, where the victor would likely be the team that made the most out of its opportunities.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, that team happened to be King’s Way Christian.
The Knights took advantage or run-scoring chances late in the game, while the Bulldogs failed to cash in after holding one-run leads on two separate occasions, leading to a 4-2 Montesano loss at Castle Rock High School.
“When they had the opportunities, they capitalized,” Monte head coach Mike Osgood said. “They got runners on base and came through with the clutch hits. That’s where we struggled a little bit today. We had plenty of opportunities. … But we struggled to get that big hit when we needed it.”
Monte (19-2 overall) held a lead or a share of it through the first four innings, as the Bulldogs struck first when senior Matt Plato sent a Brannan Meriwether pitch over the right-field fence for a solo home run in the bottom of the first.
KWC (16-6), the defending 1A district and state champions, responded in the next half-inning, taking advantage of a dropped third strike and subsequent throwing error from Monte catcher Kyle Trout, allowing the Knights’ second inning to continue. With two on and two out, KWC’s Hunter Aarhus shot a single into left field to chase Damon Casetta-Stubbs home and tie the game at 1-1.
The Bulldogs grabbed the lead again in the third when Plato singled with two outs and Evan Bates stepped to the plate. Bates belted a double to the gap in left-center field to score Plato and give Monte the 2-1 advantage.
But Bulldogs starter Nate Kloempken ran into trouble in the top of the fifth when Meriwether led off the inning with a double. Kloempken struck out the next two batters but couldn’t get out of the inning clean due to a run-scoring base hit from Riley Danberg that tied the game at 2-2.
Kloempken fanned Blake Scully to start the sixth but then walked Riley Buehler, which ended his day on the mound. The senior right-hander finished with 10 strikeouts — including four in the second inning — walked three and allowed five hits in 5-1/3 innings pitched.
Bates entered to relieve Kloempken and was promptly greeted by Aarhus tripling to the right-field corner on Bates’ first pitch of the game. Buehler scored on the play to give KWC its first lead at 3-2.
A few pitches later, Bates was called for a balk, plating Aarhus with the Knights’ fourth run.
“There not state champs by a fluke,” Osgood said of KWC’s ability to tie the game then take the lead. “I think it was one of those games that really could have gone either way. They got the breaks at the end that helped them out and that’s just the game of baseball.”
With two out and nobody on in the bottom of the seventh, the Bulldogs put some pressure on hard-throwing Knights reliever Sam Lauderdale when senior Carson Klinger reached on a base hit that took a tricky hop over Danberg at shortstop. Monte leadoff hitter Teegan Zillyett then reached when Danberg couldn’t corral a short pop-fly, bringing the winning run to the plate in the form of Bulldogs infielder Braden Dohrmann. But Lauderdale got Dohrmann to strikeout swinging, ending the threat and giving the Knights their second-consecutive 1A District championship.
“It was probably the biggest challenge we’ve had to date,” Knights head coach Gregg Swenson said of facing the Bulldogs. “I have great respect for Coach Osgood and what he does. So I told our guys we had to stay locked in and focused on every pitch.”
Klinger led Monte offensively, going 3-for-3 on the day. Plato was the only other Bulldog with a multi-hit game, going 2-for-3 with two runs scored and a home run.
Swenson’s key to curtailing a disciplined, high-scoring Montesano offense — pound the strike zone.
“That’s been our mentality,” he said. “We’re going to attack and attack and not give the freebies up. We just talked about it yesterday in practice that the team that wins the freebie war is probably going to win this game. So it’s an important aspect for us.”
Of a total 95 pitches thrown by Knights pitchers Meriwether, Casetta-Stubbs and Lauderdale, 66 were strikes (69 percent).
Having missed a chance to add more hardware to the trophy case, Monte turns its attention to the bigger prize of the state championships, which begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday when the Bulldogs face University Prep at Franklin Pierce High School in Tacoma.
“It’s one hiccup along the way,” Osgood said of the loss. “The ultimate goal wasn’t to be district champions, it’s to go further than that. … I do think this is a final-four type club that we have. Our guys want another chance at (KWC) and we know that we can potentially face these guys in a state championship game. I think that’s all the motivation we need. Our guys love to compete and we’ll bounce back and be fine.”
Kings Way Christian 010 012 0 — 4 8 1
Montesano 101 000 0 — 2 8 0
WP — Meriwether (5 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 2K); LP — Kloempken (5.1 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 10 K, 3 BB); SV — Lauderdale (IP, H, 3 K)
Leading Hitters: M — Klinger (3-3), Plato (2-3, HR, 2 R), Bates (1-2, 2B, RBI); KWC — Aarhus (3-3, R, 2 RBI), Meriwether (2-4, 2B, R)