DES MOINES — Their season didn’t close the way the Thomas Jefferson baseball team wanted it to, but it was hard not to notice the Yellow Jackets’ improvement over the course of the year.
In their last five games, T.J. beat two teams who are still playing in St. Albert and Lewis Central. However, winning Friday night at powerhouse West Des Moines Dowling was a tall task.
In the Class 4-A, Substate 8 opener, Thomas Jefferson (8-27) fell to Dowling in five innings, 11-0.
The Maroons (28-11) scored all 11 runs in the first three innings and gave up just two hits to a T.J. team that had averaged six runs per contest in its previous four games.
The Yellow Jackets started the game with a pair of runners on base against sophomore Carter Baumler, but T.J. had just three total base runners in the final four innings.
Regardless, T.J. coach Josh Bullock was impressed with his squad. As a program, Dowling has made 18 trips to state, including five state titles and the 10th-most wins at state all time with 19. They were the 4-A state runners-up last season.
“I think our team got extremely better,” Bullock said. “I mean, from the beginning of the season we struggled a little bit, but they never gave up and just kept getting better and better. We were playing our best ball at the end of the year. We just ran into a brick wall in Dowling.
“They’re good. That’s probably the best team we’ve played in four or five years.”
Baumler picked up the win, and T.J. sophomore Grant Merk took the loss. Senior Connor Osborn and Merk had the lone hits for the Yellow Jackets. Baumler and senior Connor Erps led Dowling at the plate, each going 2 for 2 with four runs driven in.
In the first, Osborn reached on a single to right field and senior Jayden Steele was hit by a pitch to put runners on first and second with one out. But Baumler got two straight strikeouts to end the inning.
In the bottom half, the Maroons wasted no time showing why they were the top seed in the substate group.
A leadoff double by sophomore Adam Brauch and a 2-run homer by Erps made it 3-0 after one.
Dowling coach Mark Roering said his team put some extra work in once they learned they were facing a left-hander of Merk’s ability.
“I’ve been around baseball a long time and when I heard they had a lefty … that always gives you a little pause,” Roering said. “So we really worked it hard the last three days but we hit him pretty hard the first inning and got ahead. I thought that was key to our game and we could kind of relax.”
Baumler fanned all three T.J. batters in the top of the second. In the bottom half, eighth-grader Robert Wood replaced Merk after two straight walks, but he didn’t fare much better.
After a walk and two-run singles by senior Sam McMurray and Erps, the Yellow Jackets turned to senior Jordan McAlpine, who forced three straight groundouts to end the inning.
Despite their struggles, Bullock said getting young players like Merk and Wood experience in big moments will pay dividends in the future.
“It’s awesome because they’ll be right back there next year,” Bullock said. “The younger guys are playing a ton, and they’re playing really well. They don’t ever give up. That’s the thing, they’ll keep battling.”
A 3-run homer by Baumler in the third inning with two outs made it 11-0, but McAlpine didn’t allow a run or a hit in the fourth.
McAlpine, who will play baseball at Briar Cliff with Osborn next season, has seen the development of the T.J. program over the course of his career. It was clear to him that this year’s team was different.
“We found ways to win,” McAlpine said. “Last year, there were times when we wanted to win but couldn’t put together anything and we didn’t know how to win. And this year we raised expectations for ourselves and started to come in expecting to win. Hopefully they can take another step with that next year.”
Thomas Jefferson (8-27) 000 00– 0 2 1
WDM Dowling (28-11) 353 0x–11 8 0
W: Carter Baumler. L: Grant Merk. 2B: WDM, Adam Brauch. HR: WDM, Connor Erps, Carter Baumler.