When asked last Saturday whom he'd start on the bump against Alta, Storm Lake St. Mary's coach Ryan Berg said something to this effect: "We're not sure. We'll have to wait and see how the kids' arms are feeling after they get some rest, and take things from there ... "
It wasn't quotation-mark fodder.
It was part of the scheme.
And it worked.
Starting pitcher Justin Cullen held serve for 3 1/3 innings, T.J. Miller and Jon Foell came on with contrasting throwing styles in the fourth, and the Panthers beat league champion Alta 7-5 in a Class 1A District 3 quarterfinal Tuesday in Cyclone country, exacting revenge on a club that had outscored them 36-1 in two previous matchups.
St. Mary's shed its losing record, improving to 14-14 with its 11th victory in its last 14 games. The Panthers play Newell-Fonda - winners of seven straight - in tonight's semifinal at 7 on the same diamond. The winner of that game will play Sac City - itself an upset-minded squad after beating 1A No. 4 WLVA - or Odebolt-Arthur in the district final in Alta Saturday at 7 p.m. Substate is set for Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Carroll.
Alta closed 24-8.
The Panthers' game plan, in its simplest terms: keep the Cyclones guessing all night long.
"I knew I was going to (start Cullen and employ an assembly line of pitchers if necessary) since the last time we played them," Berg confessed with a laugh. "We knew it was a matter of keeping them off balance. Knowing that we don't have the ace pitcher most other teams can say they have, we were just going to make sure they don't have a chance to see anybody too long, and it worked.
"You have to take a shot at it sometimes, and this time it paid off."
Cullen, who gave up four hits and four earned runs, exited with one out in the decisive fourth and Cyclones on second and third, after Andrew Allerdings jacked a ground-rule double to center. Alta's Alan Hinkeldey then greeted Miller by lacing a two-run single past outstretched Panthers second baseman Connor Richardson that tied the game at 4-4.
Following a Paul Allerdings single, a passed ball and a hit batsman, Berg put the ball in the hands of his catcher.
All Foell did was mow down the Cyclones' No. 2 and 3 batters - Jake Bibler and Jack Mills - to escape a one-out bases-loaded jam, and then fan four more batters over the next three innings for the win, with no hits, one unearned run and one walk.
"I was pretty confident in my defense out there, so it's a lot easier going up there to pitch in that kind of situation when you're confident," said Foell, a junior. "I just tried to stay relaxed."
Bibler and Mills were gnats to the Panther pitchers all year, said Berg.
"Part of it comes down to (Foell) wanting the ball, too, because even before I'd brought T.J. in at the start of that inning, he'd said to me between innings, 'I'm ready whenever,' " Berg said. "Sometimes you don't like bringing a catcher in in the middle of an inning, but at least I knew that if I had to, he was ready."
St. Mary's junior Alec Kestel plated what would become the winning runs in the bottom of four, fisting a two-out, two-run single over second base off Alta reliever Jake Syndergaard's inside heat.
"I got jammed," Kestel said with a laugh. "We came in hoping they'd be a little overconfident and we knew if we made the defensive plays we could do it, behind some good pitching. It's the first time I think I've beat Alta my whole high school career - in anything.
"It's huge. It feels great."
The Cyclones stirred up trouble in the top of five, with Scott Radke and Austin Stille reaching base on a walk and an error, respectively, and then double stealing their way to third and second. Cody Nesbitt brought Radke home on a sacrifice fly, but the Panthers gunned Stille down at third on a tide-turning 8-6-5 (Michael Ivey-to-Miller-to-Cullen) double play, and Foell fanned Andrew Allerdings to escape the fifth with the Panthers up 6-5.
Foell scored the last run of the game on a wild pitch in the bottom of the sixth.
"We were scared to death coming into this game. The previous two games we outscored St. Mary's 36-1, and it's hard to get kids up. We came out and played hard; I thought the kids were prepared, but we couldn't put base hits together when we needed to," Cyclones coach Jerry Braunschweig said. "And (St. Mary's) did a nice job. They made the plays when we put the ball in play, and our hats off to them. They came out on top on the scoreboard. That's what tournaments are all about.
"I don't think our kids overlooked them at all. It was their night, plain and simple."
The Cyclones project to be in the hunt for a third straight Northwest Conference title in 2008, returning everyone but Paul Allerdings and Hinkeldey. They had seven players bat over .370 while winning at a .750 clip this season.
"We've got a couple records going down to Boone. We had 30 triples this year (including 10 from Radke); which, 28's in the record book, so hitting-wise we did a nice job," Braunschweig said. "Unfortunately in tournaments, that doesn't mean much. When you look at the big picture, (this was) probably just a good character builder.
"I think all the ingredients are there" for a run next year.
Alta scored the game's first run on a double to dead left by Bibler in the first, but Cyclones right-handed starter Mills uncharacteristically struggled with his control, hitting Marco Barahona to load the bases and walking Ivey to give the Panthers their first run in the bottom of one.
Kestel scored on a wild pitch, and Cullen closed the inning with a two-run, hit-and-run single through the left side to give the black and white a 4-1 lead.
Nesbitt gave Alta its second run - on a one-out lined single to left in the fourth.
Foell finished a perfect 3-for-3 and Kestel was 3-for-4 with two RBIs to engineer SLSM's offensive attack. Miller added a triple and Barahona a single.
The Panthers turn their attention to Newell-Fonda, which beat them by scores of 6-2 and 4-1 this season. The Mustangs have strong pitching and strong hitting up and down their lineup, said Berg.
But the Panthers remain confident, Foell said.
"We played Newell close both times in the regular season. We're starting to hit our peak at the right time," said Foell. "So hopefully we can keep it going."