By PATRICK SLACK
A year ago, the Little Falls baseball team suffered a pair of heartbreaking defeats in the section playoffs to St. Cloud Cathedral, which went on to win the Class AA state tournament.
On Thursday, the third-ranked Flyers got another crack at home against the top-ranked Crusaders in a clash of unbeaten teams.
This time, Little Falls would not be denied.
After the two teams traded early runs, the Flyers put up two runs in the fifth and one in the sixth to build a 5-2 lead, then held off a seventh-inning rally to come away a 5-4 victory.
The ball carried in the early innings, with Cathedral hitting a pair of solo homers and Little Falls junior Spencer Fenske belting a two-run shot.
With the score tied at 2-2, the Crusaders threatened to regain the lead with runners at second and third and no outs in the fourth.
But with the infield in and a slim margin for error, Little Falls senior starting pitcher Luke Thoma bore down, getting two weak groundouts and a strikeout to escape the inning unscathed.
“That was huge,” Little Falls head coach John Hanowski said. “It was a real character inning, the way we made plays. We played the infield in, which can come back and burn you, but we thought with the way they were pitching we might not get more than one or two more runs.”
Little Falls did manage to chase the Cathedral starter out of the game in the bottom of the fourth, then struck for two runs in the fifth.
Junior Collin Eckman led off with a double and senior Joey Hanowski reached base on a bunt to put runners at the corners, then Eckman dashed home after an errant throw to second on a stolen base by Hanowski.
Hanowski advanced to third on the play and came home to score on a sacrifice fly by junior Matt Stumpf.
The Flyers tacked on a pivotal insurance run in the sixth when Eckman singled home senior Mitch Gregory, setting the stage for the seventh.
The Crusaders filled the bases to open the frame without swinging the bat on two walks and a hit batsmen from the bottom third of their order.
But despite closing the gap to 5-4 with two runners still on base and only one out, Thoma coaxed a fly out to senior right fielder Tony Arnold for the second out, then took the final batter himself with his 10th punchout of the game to secure the win.
Thoma improved to 4-0 with the win, scattering six hits without issuing a walk until the seventh.
“He came out and pitched,” Hanowski said. “His command was very good. Curveball, changeup, he mixed it up.”
Senior Ian Stewart, Gregory, Eckman and Fenske each had two hits to lead the Flyers, with Fenske driving in three runs, Gregory scoring twice and Eckman scoring once and knocking in a run.
Hanowski and Stumpf also had hits.
“They’re a good team, no doubt about it, so it was a definitely a nice win.” Hanowski said, “But the real encouraging thing is I thought we could’ve played better.”
Little Falls plays at Zimmerman, Friday.
Cathedral 4 6 1
Little Falls 5 10 2
Little Falls—Spencer Fenske: 2-3, HR, 3-RBI, R, SF; Mitch Gregory: 2-4, 2-2B, 2-R; Collin Eckman: 2-4, 2B, RBI, R, SB; Ian Stewart: 2-3; Joey Hanowski: 1-3, R, SAC, SB; Matt Stumpf: 1-2; WP-Luke Thoma: 7-IP, 4-R, 6-H, 2-BB, 10-K.