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Traditional rivals SM, Alta to face off Friday in playoffs

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Baseball tradition will be on display as well as a good old fashioned Northwest Conference rivalry here Friday night when the Storm Lake-St. Mary's and Alta baseball team's hookup in a district semifinal playoff game.

"We've had some great games with St. Mary's on the tournament trail over the years and this should be no different," said Alta coach Jerry Braunschweig Wednesday afternoon. "And this should be a good game for fans to watch."

St. Mary's enters the game 16-11 overall. The Panthers finished 10-6 and in fourth place in the Northwest Conference. Alta enters the game 23-6 overall and 12-4 in conference play.

The two teams played twice during the regular season, with St. Mary's winning game one on its home field 4-3 early in the season. Alta came back later in the campaign with an 11-1 win.

In game one, Alta took a 3-1 lead over the Panthers into the bottom of the seventh but saw St. Mary's rally for three runs in that frame for the win.

"I think we changed pitchers three times and in that seventh inning and we had problem throwing strikes," Braunschweig said. "That was probably the difference in the game right there.

"In the second game, we just had our bats going and were ready to play from the first inning on."

St. Mary's enters Friday's contest with a four game winning streak and after beating Aurelia 5-3 Monday night in the district quarterfinals.

Ryan Berg said he'll most likely start hard-throwing junior Charlie Benz Friday night against the Cyclones. Benz pitched a complete game in the Panthers' win over Alta early in the season.

"That's the plan right now," added Berg, who said senior righthander Kevin Brown would also be available in relief, even though he pitched seven innings Monday.

"The most important factor for Charlie is control," Berg said. "If he's throwing strikes, he's usually does a good job on the mound for us."

The real key for the Panthers, Berg said, will be making routine plays on defense.

"In the games we've won, our error total has been lower and vice versa," Berg said. "How we play defense will probably be the biggest key for us."

Offensively, the Panthers have been streaky, Berg said.

"An important factor for us will be to simply put the ball in play," Berg said. "We've had a tendency in some games to strike out too much but when we make contact, we can usually make things happen. And when we're swinging the bats well, we're capable of scoring some runs."

Benz and the Panther defense will have its hands full with the Alta offense. The first eight hitters in the Cyclones lineup are all hitting over .300, according to Braunschweig.

"They are strong offensively from top to bottom in their lineup," said Berg. "They have good speed, strong depth in their pitching staff and are solid defensively."

As of Wednesday afternoon, Braunschweig wasn't sure who he would start on the mound Friday. He said it would be one of three seniors - either righthanders Eric Holton, Steve Hamer or Jamie Hammer. Hamer pitched five innings Monday in Alta's 17-1 win over Odebolt-Arthur in the quarterfinals.

"We'll see how practice goes Thursday, then we'll probably make a decision," the Alta coach said. "It will depend on which defense will work the best for us, because all three pitchers will be playing somewhere in the lineup for us."

The Cyclones also have an added advantage of being a more experienced team. Last season, the Cyclones were district champs and lost to Granville-Spalding in nine innings at substate.

"I think our kids are tournament tested and know what to expect," said Braunschweig. "We want to approach this game like a normal, regular season game but at the same time, we know there's no tomorrow.

"We aren't taking anybody lightly, and we expect this game with St. Mary's to be hard-fought. Anytime you play a team with the tradition and good coaching they have, you know you're in for a battle."

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