Even after impressive victories, skeptics were everywhere.
But the Bulldogs silenced those critics on Wednesday afternoon as they captured the Class 3, District 1 championship with a 7-3 win against Notre Dame at VFW Stadium.
Sikeston will play in a Class 3 Sectional game next Thursday at they host the winner of District 2. Game time has yet to be determined.
It's the Bulldogs' fourth district title in the last five years and it marked the team's 20th victory, the sixth straight year they've reached the 20-win plateau.
Even though the Bulldogs were seeded first in the district, many thought third-seeded Notre Dame was the team to beat as they had won 13 of 15 games heading into Wednesday, including two wins against Sikeston.
Even in the latest state poll, Notre Dame slipped ahead of Sikeston with a No. 7 state ranking. Sikeston is ranked 10th.
"We split with them this year, but they won the one that matters," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Graviett. "I've enjoyed all four battles we've had with these guys. It's a classy bunch of kids. Sometimes the years that there isn't a lot of high expectations or a lot of pressure, that's the years you do things. I think this bunch has a real shot to do something in the post season."
The Bulldogs had to retool most of the lineup after graduating their top five hitters, including three all-state players.
But this year's team didn't seem to miss a beat. With nine seniors leading the way, the Bulldogs exceeded expectations and are now 20-5.
"We wanted to come out and show everybody that counted us out what we could do," said Sikeston senior Cullen DeHart. "Today we showed them."
DeHart dealt the big blow early as he sent a Kirk Boeller 3-1 pitch the opposite way to left field for a 3-run home run in the bottom of the first.
"He hung it -- I saw it and just hit it where it was pitched," said DeHart of his eighth home run this season. "It took the immediate pressure off."
The 3-0 lead was already as much as Sikeston had scored against Notre Dame the previous two games combined.
"Big time players make big time plays and it started out with a three-run homer from Cullen," said Graviett. "As tight as our other games have been this year, you put three runs up in the first inning and that's a big backbreaker for us. With one pitch they get that kind of lead."
The early lead certainly boded well for Sikeston. On the mound, the left-
handed throwing DeHart carried an earned run average of 1.20 coming into the game.
On Wednesday he was sharp, allowing six hits while walking four in picking up the win. All three Notre Dame runs were unearned.
Notre Dame got its first run in the top of the third when DeHart walked Dane Balsmann with the bases loaded to bring in Jacob Essner, who had reached on an error.
But in the bottom of the fourth, Sikeston responded with another big fly, this time a two-run homer off the bat of Landers to left field to push the Bulldog lead to 5-1.
It was Landers' first home run of the season.
"It couldn't come at a better time," said Landers. "Coach just told us to go in there and rip it. The next thing you know, the first pitch is a fastball down the middle. I swung, got a hold of it and there it went."
Sikeston tacked on another run in the bottom of the fifth as Landers was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to bring in Josh Jackson, extending the lead to 6-1.
Notre Dame scored its final two runs in the top of the sixth as Jacob Wengert and Jeremy Brinkmeyer both trotted home on a two-out throwing error, cutting the Sikeston lead to 6-3.
Sikeston got an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth as senior Ryan Dicus drew a bases loaded walk to bring in senior Garland Hemphill, who was pinch-running for Tyler Baker.
"Every time we tried to chip away they had an answer," said Graviett. "We had opportunities to score almost every inning and we couldn't come through with the hit."
Notre Dame had one final chance to get back in the game in the seventh inning.
Shane Menz led off with a single but he was erased on a fielder's choice. Sikeston then turned a 4-6-3 double play the end the game.
Both teams had numerous other chances to score more runs.
Sikeston stranded the bases loaded three times and left 12 runners on base altogether. Notre Dame stranded eight base runners.
"Both teams had some big opportunities -- we had chances to blow it open and they had some chances to get back in it," said Sikeston coach Kevin Self.
Notre Dame's Boeller, who one week ago pitched a two-hit shutout against the Bulldogs, wasn't as sharp Wednesday.
He threw 4 2/3 innings, allowing six runs off eight hits. He walked six and hit two batters in getting the loss.
"He struggled a little bit with control," said Graviett. "They were sitting on some of his offspeed stuff. It probably hurt us with them seeing him last week. They made adjustments today and hit the ball off him."
Blake Essner threw 1 1/3 innings of relief, allowing one unearned run off one hit with one walk.
"I felt like when we played up there the last time we were a little flat," said Self. "There wasn't anything on the line and I think both teams knew that. Today I knew it would be a different story. They threw the same kid and we had Cullen, who they hadn't seen. I felt like his stuff would be good enough and it was."
Sikeston out-hit Notre Dame 9-to-6.
Landers, who had numerous defensive gems at third base, was 2-2 with three RBIs and two runs.
"How big were Richard's plays at third base?" said Self. "He made some dandies."
Senior shortstop J.R. Bizzell was 2-3 with two runs scored. Senior left fielder Eric Chappell went 2-4.
Menz led Notre Dame with a 3-4 day at the plate. He was the only multiple hitter for the Bulldogs.
Notre Dame will graduate nine seniors from this year's team.
It's the third straight year Sikeston and Notre Dame had met for the district championship.
After Notre Dame's historic upset of the top-ranked Bulldogs in 2003, Sikeston has now won the last two district games.
"They've won a few and kind of knocked us off at times, but I felt like this year we knocked them off," said Self. "They came in with the advantage -- they were hot. This year the pressure was off and we were overachievers.
"Another 20 win season. How about that? That's hard to imagine that it's now six in a row. It's a credit to not only the program but the kids that accept the program. They believe what we tell them and they're coachable. They trust us to make the right decisions and when that happens and everybody's on the same page, then this is the result. Hard work pays off. You can out-work people in baseball."
|Notre Dame||001 002 0||--||3||6||1|
|Sikeston||300 211 x||--||7||9||2|
WP -- Cullen DeHart (5-1). LP -- Kirk Boeller. HR -- Sikeston: DeHart (8), Richard Landers (1). Multiple hits -- Sikeston: J.R. Bizzell 2-3, Landers 2-2, Eric Chappell 2-4. Notre Dame: Shane Menz 3-4. Records -- Sikeston (20-5). Notre Dame (17-8).